Bureaucracy and Innovation Revisited: An Ethnography of Innovation Hiding in Coercive Bureaucracies

Mia Koss Hartmann, Rasmus Koss Hartmann

Publikation: Working paperForskning


One of the most enduring ideas in organization science is that bureaucracy stifles innovation. This is widely documented, as are numerous moderating factors that produce exceptions to the pattern.
This paper reconsiders how bureaucracy shapes innovation, not by focusing on exceptions, but by problematizing the relationship directly. Inspired by prior ethnographic studies of coercive bureaucracies and theories of secrecy and hiding behavior, we propose that coercive bureaucracies do not necessarily impede innovation, but rather create the appearance of doing so. Coercive bureaucracies create expectations of epistemic boundaries and these expectations lead to both innovation and innovation hiding, which interact to produce low levels of overt innovation. We make this argument based on three years of full-time in-depth ethnographic field studies in two police units and two military units, supplemented by innovation histories, surveys and expert evaluations.
This argument implies that future research examines more deeply the organizational processes and practices by which innovation might occur even in coercive bureaucracies. Further, it encourages innovation research methods that rely less on distant and manager-centered metrics and more on in-depth and up-close empirical approaches.
UdgivelsesstedCambridge, Mass.
UdgiverMIT Sloan School of Management
Antal sider60
StatusUdgivet - 14 sep. 2017
NavnMIT Sloan School of Management Working Paper


  • Bureaucracy
  • Innovation
  • Innovation hiding
  • Ethnography
  • Mixed methods