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Innovation Exposed: Case Studies of Strategy, Organization and Culture in Heterarchies

Innovation Exposed: Case Studies of Strategy, Organization and Culture in Heterarchies

Sarah Maria Alison Schoellhammer



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As innovation is an inherently ambiguous, complex and risky undertaking, there is often a presumption that shelter for innovation from the mainstream organization is the best approach. This shelter, too, provided by classic innovation management, remains working to bureaucraticprinciples of formalization and centralization, though limitations as to flexibility are acknowledged.Non-bureaucratic forms of organization, such as heterarchy, have long been proposed to better enable innovation. Why and how has been explored more in theory than in practice. The gap,describing and analyzing howinnovation happens in heterarchies, is to be closed by exploring theirstrategy and direction, processes and structures, and culture and leadership for innovation. A multiple case study was undertaken, exploring organizational and innovation management practices in one small, two medium-sized and two large organizations, drawing from semi-structured interviews and a range of other sources. Cross-case analysis suggests that how innovation is managed in heterarchies is both distinct from and shares characteristics with the ‘classic’ approach; with variation within heterarchies. It is distinct in the extent to which there is less formally managed ‘shelter’ for innovation, and so greater exposure, but in a generally innovation-supportive climate. It is similar as the cultureand leadershipin heterarchies mirrors the norms and values associated with an innovation culture. This study is a contribution to knowledge in that itsheds light on how innovation happens in heterarchies, described in theory as particularly innovation-suppportive. That contribution to can be summed up as evidence that heterarchies are holistically innovative organizations, where innovation thrives because it is ‘exposed’ rather than sheltered, asan integral part of the innovation-supportive culture. That exposure brings with it a different set of challenges for leaders and employees to those normally associated with achieving and managing innovation. While such a picture in general was anticipated the details on the strategy, structure and culture of heterarchy are revealed. Further, the contribution here is evidence that heterarchies support innovation; they do so more by cultural norms and values than by formal organization; largely dispose of formalization and centralization both in general and for innovation, such as an official innovation process. The features of what such exposure of innovation entailscan be explored and lessons for practice generalized within and beyond heterarchies. Innovation as it is has been exposed here in heterarchies in the double sense, rendered visible and seen to be unsheltered, has many implications for innovation in organizations, which are not mainly heterarchical.

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