Part I: Our love/hate relationship with hierarchies

As an Agile Coach, I often ponder organizational structure. In particular, I find hierarchies intriguing. I work in one, yet because of my profession am sometimes considered part of a community that is seen to overtly reject them. But what is a hierarchy really? And if they are as bad as we think they are, why are they still around, and why have we not all shifted to flatter, more networked structures?

Hierarchy

/ˈhʌɪərɑːki/

a system in which members of an organization or society are ranked according to relative status or authority.

Hierarchy is a natural phenomenon. That is, it exists and has existed in the natural world since the beginning of time. There is a food chain for example, and many social animals form hierarchical structures such as wolves, lions, bees and of course, humans. Even plants and ecology form hierarchies such as the branches of trees or streams and rivers. However, this kind of hierarchy is not designed. It is instead an emergent property of a complex adaptive system known as Mother Nature. This is distinctly different from the social hierarchies that humans often impose on an existing complex environment to create some semblance of order and stability.

Hierarchies, therefore, are naturally antonymous with change and adaptation. Their inflexibility is ironically both what keeps us feeling secure, and what also can be fatal to an organization that operates in our ever-increasing complex social and technological environments.

Hierarchies satisfy

Order and stability are in our DNA. Hierarchies often satisfy this basic human need. We know our role and relative position among the group, responsibilities, accountability and future career growth are clear — and in many cases even if we are in disagreement with the status quo, we prefer “the certainty of misery over the misery of uncertainty.”

In some cases, the clarity that hierarchies bring can also reduce reaction times during crises simply because you know who is responsible for what and decisions can be made faster. Stability and specialization are also important for productivity. If change occurs too frequently, or we generalize too much in our work then productivity will inevitably decrease.

Finding some sense of stability in your surrounds is part-and-parcel of being human. In “VUCA” environments it wouldn’t be such a stretch to say that we might crave it even more. From this point of view, it is no wonder then that in our ever-increasingly complex world, hierarchies are still the default social construct we apply to our organizations, nor would it be that surprising should they continue to be. However, should hierarchies survive into the future, they will likely look, or rather behave, a little differently than how they do today.

Social hierarchies are reductionist

This order and stability generally come from the way hierarchies reduce something very large into smaller, more easily understood (and controlled) parts. Reductionism also relies on the belief that by understanding these smaller parts, you can understand (and therefore optimize) the whole.

All of this, however, depends on an environment that is relatively predictable and linear (such as the manufacturing floor). In this way, as Frederick Taylor discovered in the early 20th century, it is possible for one person (a manager) to be able to oversee and understand their respective ‘component’, standardize and optimize work, determine the best path forward with relative certainty and ultimately add value to the whole. There are usually not so many variables at play in this setup that need to be considered, greatly reducing complexity and making the operation of the component and the entire system rather repetitive and stable. Like a machine, if you keep all its parts well oiled, it will continue to work as it should.

The Space Between

Unfortunately, this approach doesn’t work so well in unpredictable and non-linear environments such as complex adaptive systems. These are systems such as the climate, social networks, markets, and ecosystems that can change and adapt in ways unknown and unexpected due to an unfathomable number of variables impossible for a single individual to be able to process. Taylor’s “manager-knows-best” approach simply can’t work in an environment where the butterfly effect thrives. These are systems in which ‘knowledge work’ as Peter Drucker might say, is required, where creativity, autonomy and continuous experimentation define success.

When we impose a hierarchical structure to such a system, it can no longer be optimized just by keeping its components “well oiled”. It is the behaviour between the components and the resulting emergent properties that determines the whole, not the sum of its parts. Nor can traditional power dynamics, the rigid levels of authority and accountability so infamous to hierarchies, continue without unintended consequences that hinder progress, for example, the loss of proactivity or creativity, or the rise of politics or workplace insecurity. These are emergent properties and they are not isolated to any one particular part of the hierarchy but instead are characteristics of the whole. They exist as a result of how it’s components interconnect — in this case, via command-and-control. To recognize this we need to view a hierarchy as a system.

Summary

Hierarchies are still around because their structure succeeds in providing some sense of order and stability, and perhaps some false sense of control.

I dare say that it is not the ‘shape’ of a hierarchy that is problematic, in so much as the traditional reductionist behaviours that one might expect to find in a hierarchy. If organizations wish to continue having a ‘fractal’ structure that a hierarchy provides and successfully navigate complexity then they must adapt. There needs to be a shift away from solely focusing on the optimization of teams, departments and other ‘parts’, to optimizing the way they interconnect.

This means changing traditional hierarchical behaviours such as command-and-control power dynamics and rigid, vertical communication in ways that promote qualities such as creativity, autonomy and rapid experimenting.

Some might say though that the structure of a hierarchy is what causes or at least supports its notoriously rigid communication and top-down power dynamics, and therefore it is best to simply change the entire structure itself. Part II will briefly look at the concept of a flat-organization, seen by some circles as an alternative/ cure to the baggage that comes with hierarchies.

An Agile Coach who writes from time to time about his thoughts and experiences.