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Is free-spirited management more effective?

Updated Saturday 3rd October 2009

Is the encouragement of innovation in the workplace better for business?

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Traditional management practices are associated with an approach that emphases the monitoring, evaluation and control of organisational activities. Some people feel that this approach treats workers like children who need to be told what to do and that a more open approach treating workers as adults is more likely to draw out the best from staff.

Over the past several decades there have been competing trends - on the one hand to empower workers and, in theory at least, push more decisions down to the front-line, and on the other increasingly intrusive scrutiny of daily work. We know people are more likely to be happy when they have control over their actions suggesting that managers maybe be well advised to give employees as much freedom as they can over how they achieve their goals if not the goals themselves.

Quite a bit of research suggests that creative companies tend to have more open cultures where staff are able to challenge the received wisdom and do not feel obliged to look busy. In contrast non-creative climates are often much slower to react because committee-bound procedures slow the decision process and a 'do not rock the boat'/
'watch your back' culture inhibits the possibility of ideas for improvement being heard, let alone acted on. If your company is checking every last penny of your expenses be worried!

However, one size rarely fits all. National values also affect the expected style of the organisation culture. For example historically Chinese companies have run medium size organisations much more informally than their Western counterparts (who they view as somewhat hampered by procedure) whilst accepting that Western style governance practices are necessary for large enterprises.

Staff also differ in the extent to which they favour openness and guidance and this variation is related to the nature of the job they perform as well as personality. Those at the creative end of the spectrum, in research and development for example, tend to be motivated by job satisfaction and work much better if given maximum freedom to explore areas that interest them and follow their own hunches as to how best to move from an idea to a prototype. Further along the innovation process, in production for example, employees often prefer more direction with clear goals and milestone and can move more rapidly with group rather than individual incentives.

Find out more

For more on management style, organisational culture and innovation management around the world see the Open University Business School's Creativity, Innovation and Change course.

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