When hierarchy matters

Social networks are an important driver for successful innovation, both at the individual level as well as the organizational level. Recent research has also shaped that networks within teams can enhance performance. Innovative project teams are embedded in an organizational context, however, and teams typically consist of people with expertise from diverse backgrounds, and from different units. Team members may have ties to other teams, business units, and hierarchical levels. Although it seems clear that such ties can influence team performance, remarkably little research has focused on what is here referred to as vertical and horizontal cross-ties. Previous research may have ignored the possibility that vertical and horizontal bridging ties may have different performance outcomes. Although the literature suggests that diversity of input, or horizontal cross-unit ties will benefit team performance and innovativeness, there is reason to believe that ties to higher levels in the organization might have an effect on project team performance and innovativeness too. In recently published work as part of a project with Prof. Wilfred Dolfsma of Laughborough University, England, and  Prof. Roger Leenders of Tilburg University, The Netherlands, we shed further light on this area as we examine the role of vertical cross-hierarchy ties for ideation. In an exploratory analysis combining quantitative and qualitative results, we distinguished between horizontal cross-unit and vertical cross-hierarchy ties and their contribution to new business development (NBD) project performance, thereby making a substantial contribution to both academic literature and managerial practice. Our study is based on a multiple case-study approach of several NBD project teams in a large European financial service provider. Our results that are published in the Journal of Product Innovation Management show that successful innovation project teams are characterized by a large number of cross-unit ties in combination with a large number of cross-hierarchical ties compared with less successful project teams. Additionally, proof is found that vertical cross-hierarchy ties should be concentrated rather than scattered across project members. Emphasizing a need to take the hierarchical orientation of intra organizational relations into account also in the context of ideation opens up an interesting avenue for future research, we hope, and equally important, helps management in designing more robust innovation networks within their organizations for the future.

Aalbers, H.L., Dolfsma, W. & Leenders, R.Th.A.J. (2016). Vertical and Horizontal Cross-Ties: Benefits of Cross-Hierarchy and Cross-Unit Ties for Innovative Project Teams. Journal of Product Innovation Management, 33(2), 141-153.



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