Culture & Complexity

Toward an innovative culture: From hierarchical to flow organisation

Frequently I hear culture described as ‘the way we do things around here’ and while as an observation that may be true, in seeking a deeper understanding it falls short. Culture and complexity go hand-in-hand. The recognised go-to for all things culture is Edgar Schein (ref below)

Schein talks about the idea of learned assumptions, behaviours and norms in a group. As people enter an established culture, the way they adapt to that culture and assimilate to the prevailing norms is learnt, through modelling, interactions, and the unspoken messages on the physical environment. 

I’ve experienced this first hand, where the physical environment shouted the normalised culture loud and clear. In a so-called ‘open’ plan workspace, except for the upper echelons who had an office, the remainder of the staff worked in cubicles. Here’s the thing, the height of the cubicle screen was directly correlated to an employees level of seniority. So the hierarchy was clear: 

  • Glassed office with a door, next;
  • Screens higher than eyeline; followed by
  • Nose-poking screen height, and finally
  • Nowhere to hide.

Hierarchical cultures may be efficient, but they are not conducive to cultivating innovation. Mabogunje and Leifer (2019) from Stanford D.School explore ‘hierarchical’ and ‘flow’ organisations, the latter being necessary for innovation to flourish. Hierarchical organisations operate with pre-determined lines of communication, using command-and-control. They explain this as ‘thinking and doing’. While one group (higher-up) do the ‘thinking’, other people carry out the ‘doing’. An obvious disconnect.

In transforming to a culture of innovative, shifting from the mechanical clock metaphor to those described as ‘flow’, Mabogunje and Leifer (2019) suggest six areas on which to focus:

  1. Shaping the environment
  2. Team as the fundamental unit
  3. Cultivate intrinsic motivation
  4. Meet regulatory requirements
  5. Develop team tools for collaboration
  6. Re-framing leadership

Organisations which rely on hierarchy for their operation are less suited to times of complexity (that would be now!) when the sands are constantly shifting. In flow organisations the people who are ‘doing’ are also charged with ‘thinking’ because they have the best handle on the actual work. This changes the leadership culture from having to be the smartest ones in the organisation to being the most courageous, releasing control and empowering people to be agents of change. 

By no means does this let leaders off the hook.  From my reading and experience, I see that there are three important roles of the leaders in establishing innovative teams in a flow culture:

  1. Clearly communicate (and embody) vision and values;
  2. Establish enabling constraints, and critically;
  3. Balance hands-off (empowering) with hands-on (supporting) 

As I work with schools and architects in the design and development of the learning environment, my fear is that the investment in physical infrastructure can be quickly negated by a lack of investment in culture development. It is clear that these new learning environments are often proposed with new ways of working in mind, and the commensurate human transformation also necessitates design, planning and building.


Mabogunje, A., Sonalkar, N. & Leifer (2019) Redesigning Social Organisation for Accelerated Innovation in the New Digital Economy In Meinel, C. & Leifer, L (eds) Design Thinking Research, Understanding Innovation

Schein, E. H. (2017). Organization culture and leadership (Fifth edition.). Wiley.

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