Can corporate restructuring enhance creativity and make large companies more innovative? Not often. The history of business is littered with examples that show organizational restructuring is not a reliable tool for unlocking creativity.

Sony Corp., for instance, has undergone organizational shifts over a decade and has not captured ground lost in the consumer products game to Apple Inc. and others. Or Hewlett-Packard Co., where multiple organizational restructurings still left it struggling to find a more profitable pathway for its enterprise and consumer businesses.

Once you think about a company as a meshed network of small groups -- let's call them tribes -- you immediately see why restructurings don't improve outcomes. Big organizational changes are often financially costly. They are also traumatic, breaking up trusted relationships and creating insecurity even among the very creative people you are trying to encourage.

But senior managers and executives can break through these organizational barriers by soliciting and incentivizing employee ideas.

The Tribal Mindset

The challenge is the complexity of relationships within companies. Restructuring strategies tend to focus on the formal world of departmental structure, such as operations, manufacturing or procurement. Yet the formal structure, reflected in organizational charts, doesn't neatly align with how people actually relate to each other, which is based on personal relationships within small groups of individuals, in which ideas, issues and business solutions are shared.

Comparative psychological research says the human brain is designed first for personal survival and second for operating in small groups. Whether it's the CEO or the person operating a robot on the shop floor, loyalty and ideas tend to connect only within small groups that interact frequently.

This means that small groups can both nurture and block creativity. When people feel comfortable with their selected set of insiders, they can be comfortable with informal conversations about new ideas and inspiration. Yet small groups, precisely because they reinforce a tribal relationship, can make it more difficult to share knowledge or ideas outside of these groups -- so smart ideas don't flow easily around larger companies.

Think about it: Are there times when you feel guarded in what you say outside of those whom you interact with daily? Do you second guess the language of memos or your comments in meetings because you are uncertain of the reaction? Will it be friendly reciprocity, or will my idea be stolen? Will I inspire or offend someone by my comments? Will those outside my small group treat me and my ideas fairly?

Also, "smallness" by itself is not a virtue. Companies form small ad hoc committees and brainstorming groups all the time, but research shows they tend to not deliver the best ideas. Creative clusters of individuals take time and frequency of interaction to develop, which is rarely the case when in most cross-company working groups.

Identifying tribes within a firm is challenging. Groups that operate within formal divisions in the company, for example a design center, are somewhat easier to spot. A senior executive can have conversations around specific work because work and ask what or who inspires you? Are there any ideas we have overlooked and who can I ask about them?

Yet as people progress in their careers to occupy positions across departmental lines, these personal groups become harder to identify. Consequently, someone has to incentivize members of that group to reach out to senior management.