One of the most ingrained ideas in the field of management and organization is that bureaucratic organizations struggle to innovate. Organizations tend to drift towards bureaucratization over time because it is (arguably) the most efficient way to get routinized work done, but a whole range of defining features of bureaucracies (focus on standardization, dependence on hierarchy, adherence of rules, typically large size, narrow technical specialization) are anathema to exploring new opportunities and pursuing new ideas. That’s part of the reason for why bureaucracies get such a hard time.
Together with Mia Hartmann, I have a new working paper out that tries to question this idea. In Mia’s doctoral work in a prototypical public sector bureaucracy, what she saw was not an absence of innovation. On the contrary, there was lots of innovation getting done, but much of it was done in what she termed a ‘grey zone’ between being allowed and forbidden, hidden and public. Building on that observation, we trawled through prior studies of innovation amongst working-level employees and collected a wealth of qualitative and quantitative data from another police unit and two military ones.
The paper argues that bureaucracy does not necessarily impede innovation. Bureaucracy might actually increase innovation (we speculate on this, but it’s hard to know), but what bureaucracy certainly does is to drive innovation to become hidden. This, we argue, happens in part because bureaucratic organizing creates expectations amongst employees about how their ideas will be received by the organization. It also relates to the wide-spread ability of employees to innovate very efficiently within their own working practices.
‘Innovation hiding’ twists the idea of how bureaucracy impedes innovation in an interesting way. At one level, it suggests that bureaucracies might be much more innovative than we give them credit for. At another, it explains why it so often seems that they are not very innovative. In both cases, it seems that there is considerably potential in leveraging an innovative capacity that (for good reasons) tends to be overlooked in bureaucratic organizations, but also that we need to find ways of supporting this capacity appropriately.