Structured for Creativity

This post was originally authored in 2011 and recently revised.

Almost every discussion about innovation as an organizational discipline raises the question “can structure and freedom co-exist?” We can look to other models for some insights. The authors of the U.S. Constitution created a system of law that would accommodate individual liberties. And early management philosophers designed business processes to increase productivity and free up labor.

In fact, organizational models emerged in the early part of the 20th century to prevent chaos and to promote efficiency in growing businesses. Unfortunately, management practices today confirm that these very structures can become so rigid that they often prevent creativity even as they preserve order.

So how much structure do we really need to support, but not thwart, a culture of innovation at Gensler? Before I posit an answer, let’s consider another model provided by the Swiss architect Le Corbusier (1887-1965) and his distinctive plan libre.

During the early days of Le Corbusier's career, buildings were designed to reflect traditional bearing wall construction, which often limited the placement of interior walls. But as every architect knows, Le Corbusier changed all that with his most iconic design and lasting legacy to the architecture profession: the ‘Domino’ house.

Conceived in the 1910s, it promoted a simple grid of structural columns supporting horizontal concrete slabs. This organizing armature allowed for a more important innovation to be realized: a ‘free plan’ of undulating walls that could be placed in a variety of configurations to achieve spatial ingenuity. This was achievable because the walls were not limited by the structural grid, but rather enabled by it; the grid became "the function that gives the form to the interior space."1 

To bring the conversation back to organizational structure—can we introduce an innovation platform that offers just enough support in all the right places to enable the kinds of human interactions that sponsor creativity and deliver high-value outcomes? Because innovation is a series of interconnected elements, a set of independent point solutions won’t get the job done in a large organization. Instead, we must create a structural platform that provides organizational strength across a range of issues such as culture, process, talent, metrics, client engagement and leadership. 

In an ever-changing world, organizations of all kinds must be both strategically adaptable, as well as operationally efficient. To quote management guru Gary Hamel, we must "build organizations where discipline and freedom aren't mutually exclusive."2 Too much structure can mean too little freedom to explore and adapt. Too little structure prevents the scale and spread of skills and knowledge.  We’ll need to strike the right balance as we build our Domino House and expand our capacity for innovation.

Drawing My Life