Death by Hierarchy - Youmanage

Paul Oldfield |


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A hierarchy has advantages; it is simple, straightforward, easy to understand.

It has problems; I will deal briefly with two that both illustrate the “single point of failure” problem.

When I was young I read the back cover of a book called “The Peter Principle”; in short it says competent people get promoted up the hierarchy until they reach a position where they aren’t competent, incompetent ones get left where they are (but still in the hierarchy, still points of failure). Sure there are ways to deal with that.

The other problem is that of “Chinese Whispers”. Somebody at the top makes a strategy change. I recall this happening in an organisation I was working with several years ago. I heard the announcement and understood what my part in it needed to be, and started work toward the changes that needed to be made to set the top person’s strategy in place. About 2 months later the message filtered down the hierarchy and I got instructions on ‘my part in the strategy’. Not only were the instructions totally different from my understanding of my part, they also in effect would have me working against the strategy we were being asked to implement.

The hierarchy assumes that everybody in a higher layer of the hierarchy can make better decisions, and has better understanding than the people in the lower levels.

Where this is true, the hierarchical structure can work fairly well. This is more likely to be the case in the 'simple domain', referenced in a previous blog article, entitled "Simple, Complicated, Complex or Chaotic?" 

Unfortunately, as we move into a post-industrial economy the proportion of cases where this is true is decreasing dramatically.

What we might do about it?

On close inspection, many of the organisations that claim to be “hierarchical” aren’t operating a pure hierarchy. Suppose we have a main hierarchy; perhaps a hierarchy of power, command, controlled by authorisation of pay. Now we might have other key areas of knowledge and expertise – perhaps of financial matters, perhaps of technical matters, perhaps of business domain expertise, perhaps of market knowledge.

One might envisage a hierarchy of communication of this knowledge emanating from the seat, from the core body, of each area of knowledge. In case the seats of these knowledge are all board members, what you get might still be almost a pure hierarchy.

Commonly the real expertise lies elsewhere and has a ‘representative’ on the board. Where this is the case, when you overlay the communication paths you get a network emerging, rather than a hierarchy.

Networks have a lot of interesting features. One in particular is noteworthy in the context of this article, a network contains multiple communications paths between two points. This means a message passed along can get ‘repaired’ en-route; discrepancies can be detected and queried.

Another interesting case – the Board. In the boardroom we want to have all the relevant expertise to make board-level decisions, but no single member has all the relevant knowledge. The board in effect work as a collaborative team to make decisions.

This approach has been applied elsewhere to good effect. Possibly the most noteworthy case is the “Self-organising Team” of Agile Development. Rather than being assigned tasks as individuals by a team manager, the team as a whole get a bag of work and divide it up among themselves, collaborating where no single person has the knowledge to do a task.

Although it has been a long time in coming, we see this same approach starting to be applied in middle management, where teams of managers collaborate to ‘manage’ their own self-organising teams, thus applying the expertise of all the managers to all the problems, to such a degree that it becomes necessary. Now we have no “Single Point of Failure” at this level either!

These changes become challenging to the HR department – people no longer fit in pigeon-holes, the skills profiles become more advisory than mandatory, you will never get like-for-like replacement for individuals… but it doesn’t matter so much, because the teams will balance out the needs much more, themselves.

So, Hierarchy is a nice, simple idea, but don’t take it too seriously or it will be the death of your organisation!

Accept that you have a Network, and learn how to use this to best advantage.

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