A pervasive idea in management theology today is that there are only two alternatives: hierarchy or anarchy. We don’t want anarchy. So we are stuck with hierarchy. It’s not pleasant. It’s not fun. But that’s the only way to run an efficient organization.
See for example, a recent post at the Leadership Lab. “A healthy and flexible hierarchy that helps the mission of the organization is better than an unhealthy ‘boundaryless’ organization. No one wants to work in an organization where no decisions get made.”
In effect: “Shut up and go back to your cubicle!”
This kind of anachronistic thinking leads to very bad results in the modern workplace. First, hierarchy is good for making decisions but it is inflexible and unresponsive. And in today’s rapidly changing marketplace, agility is critical. Secondly, in knowledge work, a hierarchical mode of making decisions leads to decisions made by people who often don’t understand the implications of what they are deciding, and is inherently demotivating. And in knowledge work, motivation is the key to productivity. Thirdly, hierarchies are not good at innovating because there is a preoccupation with preserving the hierarchy ahead of all else. Finally, hierarchy isn’t good at innovating in a world in which innovation is critical.
Saying that hierarchies are needed is like arguing for smoking cigarettes. Hierarchies are a harmful habit that we need to break. We may be addicted to them, so that breaking the habit is hard, but the way forward is clear.
The reality is that there is another way. One can mesh the efforts of autonomous teams of knowledge workers who have the agility to innovate and meet the shifting needs of clients while also achieving disciplined execution. It requires a set of measures that might be called “dynamic linking”. The method began in automotive design in Japan and has been developed most fully in software development with approaches known as “Agile” or “Scrum”.
“Dynamic linking” means that (a) the work is done in short cycles; (b) the management sets the goals of work in the cycle, based on what is known about what might delight the client; (c) decisions about how the work should be carried out to achieve those goals are largely the responsibility of those doing the work; (d) progress is measured (to the extent possible) by direct client feedback. The most complete articulation of the practices of dynamic linkage in software development are set out in Mike Cohn’s Succeeding with Agile: Software Development Using Scrum , and as applied to general management in The Leader's Guide to Radical Management
As The Power of Pull points out, one proceeds “by setting things up in short, consecutive waves of effort, iterations that foster deep, trust-based relationships among the participants… Knowledge begins to flow and team begins to learn, innovate and perform better and faster.… Rather than trying to specify the activities in the processes in great detail.., specify what they want to come out of the process, providing more space for individual participants to experiment, improvise and innovate.”
It’s not hierarchy and it’s not anarchy. It gets the best of all worlds. It has the decisiveness of a hierarchy but without its inflexibility, its rigidity and its tendency to demotivate workers and frustrate customers. It creates an environment that is radically more productive for the organization, more congenial to innovation, and more satisfying both for those doing the work and those for whom the work is done.
It’s been implemented for over fifteen years in organizations large and small with great success. It’s discussed in detail in chapters 6 and 7 of The Leader's Guide to Radical Management: Reinventing the Workplace for the 21st Century, along with the specific practices needed to make it operational.
Worth a try.