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Revamping Organizational Hierarchy to Foster Innovation: The Case for RenDanHeYi

By Jonathan H. Westover and Rachel Bi, UVU

In today's rapidly evolving business landscape, the convergence of technological advancements and the exponential growth of data has fundamentally reshaped the way organizations operate (Aghion et al., 2005). These transformative forces have emerged as critical drivers of innovation, enabling companies to gain a competitive edge and thrive in an increasingly dynamic marketplace (Aghion et al., 2005). However, despite the immense potential that technology and data offer, many organizations find themselves shackled by traditional hierarchical structures that impede their ability to adapt and innovate (Aghion et al., 2005).

Today we will explore the concept of RenDanHeYi, a relatively new management model that seeks to break down the silos created by traditional hierarchies and foster a culture of innovation and collaboration. This article will examine the four key elements of RenDanHeYi and discuss the benefits and challenges of implementing this model in organizations. Additionally, we will delve into the challenges posed by these organizational hierarchies and explores strategies to overcome them, empowering companies to embrace change, foster a culture of innovation, and seize new opportunities in the face of evolving market conditions.

Figure 1: A Depiction of the RenDanHeYi Model

An Overview of RenDanHeYi

To address these challenges, the concept of RenDanHeYi (proposed by Mr. Zhang Ruimin, CEO of Haier Group in 2014) has emerged as a management model that seeks to break down the silos created by traditional hierarchies and foster a culture of innovation and collaboration (Aghion et al., 2005). The terminology "RendanHeyi" provides an illustrative encapsulation of its core concept: where "Ren" stands for employees, and "Dan" symbolizes customer orders. Hence, the integration of "RendanHeyi" signifies a tight nexus between employees and customer demands.

The "win-win" aspect under this paradigm implies that while catering to customer requirements, employees concurrently realize their intrinsic value. Additionally, RenDanHeYi is characterized by four key elements: customer orientation, competitor orientation, collaborative innovation networks, and supply chain collaboration (Szymanski et al., 2007; Fawcett et al., 2015; Anderson et al., 2023).

Customer orientation is crucial for understanding the needs of the consumer and enhancing marketplace performance (Szymanski et al., 2007). However, a focus solely on the salient needs of the consumer can have a detrimental effect on innovativeness when latent needs go unrecognized (Szymanski et al., 2007). Similarly, competitor orientation can have a positive effect on performance when it allows firms to generate new products according to their competitive advantages (Szymanski et al., 2007). However, it can also have a detrimental effect on innovativeness when new products result from reactive rather than proactive strategies (Szymanski et al., 2007).

Collaborative innovation networks, which involve collaboration with suppliers, customers, and other partners, have been shown to facilitate knowledge exchange and promote trust, leading to improved innovation performance (Najafi-Tavani et al., 2018). Additionally, supply chain collaboration is essential for implementing cleaner production and achieving better environmental performance (Touboulic & Walker, 2015).

Implementing the RenDanHeYi model in organizations can be challenging. Traditional hierarchical structures and resistance to relational strategies can hinder the adoption of collaborative and innovative practices (Fawcett et al., 2015).

Barriers to collaborative innovation in supply chains include the customer's safety culture, the business model, the parties' understanding of innovation, and the management of collaborative innovation (Anderson et al., 2023). Overcoming these barriers requires a deep understanding of the forces that hinder relational strategies and the development of effective governance mechanisms (Fawcett et al., 2015; Anderson et al., 2023).

The convergence of technology and data has reshaped the business landscape, and organizations need to adapt and innovate to thrive in this dynamic environment. The RenDanHeYi model offers a solution by breaking down traditional hierarchies and fostering a culture of innovation and collaboration. By embracing customer and competitor orientation, building collaborative innovation networks, and promoting supply chain collaboration, organizations can overcome the challenges posed by traditional hierarchical structures and seize new opportunities in the face of evolving market conditions.

Element 1: Encouraging Autonomy and Decentralization

Traditional organizational hierarchies are often characterized by a strict top-down decision-making process, where decisions are made by a select few at the top of the chain of command (He, 2023). However, this approach can stifle innovation and creativity, as it discourages lower-level employees from taking risks and making decisions. RenDanHeYi seeks to turn this model on its head by encouraging autonomy and decentralization (Wang, 2022).

Companies that have successfully implemented RenDanHeYi have done so by giving employees at all levels of the organization the freedom to make decisions and take risks (He, 2023). For example, the software company Valve is known for its flat organizational structure, where employees are encouraged to work on projects that they are passionate about, regardless of their job title or department (Wang, 2022). This approach has led to the development of innovative products and services, such as the Steam gaming platform and the HTC Vive virtual reality headset.

Element 2: Fostering Collaboration and Communication

Traditional organizational hierarchies often create silos, where departments work in isolation from one another (He, 2023). This can lead to a lack of communication and collaboration, which can stifle innovation. RenDanHeYi seeks to address this issue by fostering collaboration and communication across departments and levels of the organization (Wang, 2022).

Companies that have successfully implemented RenDanHeYi have done so by creating cross-functional teams that work together on projects (He, 2023). For example, the automaker Tesla has developed a team-based approach to product development, where engineers, designers, and other employees work together to develop new products and services (Wang, 2022). This approach has led to innovative products such as the Model S electric car and the Powerwall home battery.

Element 3: Emphasizing Continuous Learning and Improvement

Traditional organizational hierarchies often place a high value on stability and consistency, which can discourage employees from experimenting and taking risks (He, 2023). RenDanHeYi seeks to address this issue by emphasizing continuous learning and improvement (Wang, 2022).

Companies that have successfully implemented RenDanHeYi have done so by creating a culture that values experimentation and learning from failure (He, 2023). For example, the online retailer Amazon has a culture that encourages employees to experiment and innovate, with a focus on continuous improvement (Wang, 2022). This approach has led to innovative products and services such as Amazon Prime and Alexa, the voice-controlled virtual assistant.

Element 4: Encouraging Employee Participation and Feedback

Traditional organizational hierarchies often discourage employees from providing feedback and participating in decision-making processes (He, 2023). RenDanHeYi seeks to address this issue by encouraging employee participation and feedback (Wang, 2022).

Companies that have successfully implemented RenDanHeYi have done so by creating mechanisms for employees to provide feedback and participate in decision-making processes (He, 2023). For example, the software company Atlassian has developed a system called "FedEx Day," where employees are given 24 hours to work on any project they choose, as long as it is delivered within the allotted time frame (Wang, 2022). This approach has led to innovative products and services such as Confluence, a collaboration and knowledge management tool.

Benefit 1: Crossing Silos to Drive Innovation

Traditional management hierarchies can lead functional areas like marketing, product development, engineering, and operations to operate independently in silos with limited collaboration. However, true innovation often emerges at the intersection of diverse perspectives and skills. Silos limit an organization's ability to leverage complementary expertise from across the company and spawn new ideas that did not previously occur to individuals working alone in isolated groups. For example, insights from customer service may inspire fresh product features, while manufacturing know-how could refine prototypes in valuable ways. Collaboration across silos exposes organizations to a wider range of innovative possibilities (Girotra, 2010; Tushman & O'Reilly, 1997).

In contrast, flattened, matrix structures aim to break down barriers and encourage closer cooperation between functions. For instance, automaker BMW launched cross-functional "modular families" that pool talent from engineering, manufacturing, purchasing, and other areas to focus specifically on innovation for new vehicle platforms. These integrated teams are better able to develop pioneering yet manufacturable solutions from the outset compared to fragmented silo approaches. Software giant Adobe likewise dissolved vertical business units to induce more collaborative problem-solving across its applications portfolio. Both companies found their new structures stimulated valuable new innovations that siloed groups had missed (Birkinshaw et al., 2008; Rothaermel et al., 2006).

Benefit 2: Incentivizing Calculated Risk-Taking

Beyond organizational reforms, leaders must foster an environment where employees feel motivated to take initiative and prudent risks rather than just minimize mistakes. At many companies, however, the incentives and disincentives embedded in policies, processes, and culture actually serve to discourage risk-taking behavior and maintain the status quo. For instance, bonuses tied predominantly to short-term revenue targets or KPIs discourage investments in uncertain long-shot projects that could yield major future benefits. Similarly, public failure or the inability to deliver impossible deadlines can damage careers despite good intentions.

To overcome this, forward-thinking firms implement programs that balance risk and reward. For example, 3M gives scientists autonomy and funding to pursue "non-core" ideas on 15% of their time through its renowned "fictioneering" initiative. Those blue-sky projects have spawned many of the conglomerate's most profitable innovations, like Post-it Notes. Spotify offers its employees a special "Innovation Days" program providing time, resources, and mentorship to explore bolder concepts outside normal responsibilities. Such schemes help shift mindsets towards viewing failure as a chance to learn rather than a career liability, freeing individuals to energetically pursue innovation (Amabile, 1998; Govindarajan & Trimble, 2010).

Benefit 3: Cross-Training for Broader Perspectives

In traditional hierarchies, deep specialization is often favored over broader cross-training, yet diverse knowledge pools can spark new combinations. Limited perspective prevents breakthroughs that hybridize separate fields. Leaders must therefore provide avenues for employees to gain exposure to different areas of expertise within the organization.

For instance, legal and engineering employee rotations at innovator 3M have led to transformative new products merging materials science and intellectual property strategies. IDEO intentionally staffs projects with generalists rather than only domain experts to facilitate fresh connections. Cross-pollinating perspectives in this way generates novel solutions impossible for narrowly-focused workers operating alone within rigid roles. Companies like Google have taken it a step farther by offering "20 percent time" for employees to explore other interests, spawning major programs from Gmail to AdSense. Cross-training orientations shift mindsets away from siloed thinking towards combinatorial innovation (Ancona et al., 2001; West et al., 2001).

Benefit 4: Flattening Hierarchies for Speed

Lengthy decision chains can stifle speedy experimentation so vital to innovation in dynamic markets. Flatter structures empower passionate champions at all levels to advance compelling ideas more swiftly.

Zappos famously dissolved middle management, budget approvals, and most policies to encourage rapid testing of customer-centric hunches. Frontline employees feel trusted to directly try out promising concepts. At Netflix, multi-discipline "squads" and "chapters" rapidly deploy new features or content based on direct consumer insights rather than defined roles or processes slowing change. In contrast, legacy media companies were often trapped innovating via inches due to top-heavy governance.

While flatter structures forfeit certain controls, the exchange of autonomy for velocity can yield outsized returns. For instance, early agile adopters like Spotify slashed product development cycles from years to mere months by empowering self-organizing cross-functional teams. Their products leapfrogged competition anchored in precedence. In fast markets, the ability to learn from smaller, quicker bets is more valuable than micromanaging larger, lengthy gambles (Burton & Obel, 2004; O'Reilly & Tushman, 2013).


RenDanHeYi is a unique and innovative management model that has the potential to revolutionize the way organizations operate. By encouraging autonomy and decentralization, fostering collaboration and communication, emphasizing continuous learning and improvement, and encouraging employee participation and feedback, companies can create an environment that is conducive to innovation and creativity (Li, 2019).

While implementing RenDanHeYi may require significant changes to traditional organizational structures and practices, the benefits of doing so can be substantial. Companies that adopt this model may find that they are better able to attract and retain top talent, improve employee engagement and motivation, and ultimately drive innovation and growth (Liu et al., 2018; Wang et al., 2020).

Of course, implementing RenDanHeYi is not without its challenges. It requires a willingness to experiment, take risks, and embrace change, and it may not be suitable for all organizations or industries. However, for companies that are willing to invest the time and effort required to make it work, the potential rewards can be significant (Chen & Tan, 2020).

Ultimately, the success of RenDanHeYi will depend on the ability of organizations to balance the need for structure and hierarchy with the need for autonomy and creativity. By finding the right balance between these competing forces, companies can create an environment that is both efficient and innovative, and that empowers employees to do their best work. As the business landscape continues to evolve, it will be interesting to see how RenDanHeYi and other similar management models shape the future of work.


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Jonathan H. Westover, Chair/Professor - Organizational Leadership and Change, Organizational Leadership Department, UVU

Rachel Bi, Chair/Associate Professor - Personal Financial Planning, Finance and Economics Department, UVU

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