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The world is unflat: a few words on Holacracy and hierarchies


Note: because my blogs are getting longer and longer I’m trying a new innovation. After each bit of my blog I will try to summarise in as few words as possible whatever I’ve just said. So if you don’t have time or you get bored, just read those bits! 

Hell, there are no rules here – we’re trying to accomplish something.

– Thomas Edison speaking of his workshop (above). Summary: Thomas Edison is cool.

Apparently the world of business consultancy has finally cottoned on to what we’ve all known for years: managers are, by and large, crap. And before all my friends with the word ‘manager’ in their title get upset, don’t worry, I’m one of you. But, you see, we’re not manager managers, you know? We’re leaders. We’re creative champions of change and renewal. We’re cool. We read Malcolm Gladwell books!

So, why the epiphany? It’s all part of the latest trend in what I suppose should now be called unmanagement, which the keyboard warriors within the spheres both twitter- and blogo- have dubbed ‘flat’ organisational structure. Flat, in this context, means a lack of traditional hierarchy as seen in org charts and the like. The trail blazers with pointer lasers and white board erasers have realised that big corporations are slow, rigid and uncreative, and they lay the blame firmly at the feet of hierarchy.

Summary: Apparently hierarchy is bad and flat is good.

But here’s the problem, flat structures aren’t actually flat. In a very good and insightful article on this topic a blogger who goes by the single name of Rick (apparently he’s like Batman – he must remain anonymous so he can be a symbol for reason and clarity and so no one attacks his butler), has pointed out that these so called flat systems are deeply hierarchical. Holacracy, the example he uses, especially so. You may not have managers but that doesn’t mean everyone’s equal. And, as Rick points out, hierarchy works. There’s not a single complex social system known in nature where there’s no hierarchy to observe.

So what’s going on here? If these aren’t hierarchy-free systems, then what are they? In your correspondent’s rarely humble opinion the whole thing revolves around a simple misplacement of focus. This isn’t a question of hierarchy versus no hierarchy, it’s a question of artificial, rigid, dumb hierarchy Vs organic, fluid, smart hierarchy. And, of course, we creative types got there first.

Summary: flat systems aren’t flat, they’re smart hierarchies.

When I run any creative activity the first rule is this: you leave your job title at the door. I don’t care if you’re the CEO or the cleaner! Your job title, your qualifications, academic or otherwise, matter not. But that doesn’t mean for one moment that there’s no hierarchy in the room.

As soon as the workshop begins needs arise and people fill those needs. Some begin as high status with lots of expertise and input; others grow into it and take on more responsibility and more authority as the focus of the activity shifts towards something on which they feel strong. Over the course of the activity the leadership roles, the expertise roles, the chairmanship roles and any other roles you can think of will shift, fluidly to the person or people most suited to do it at that given moment.

My job as facilitator in this environment is to ensure this dynamic hierarchy remains liquid, that no one person or one group is able to monopolise power or drive decisions or actions based on their own preferences. In this way the group remains creative and active. At the centre of everything is not an organisational structure but a task to complete and the roles and those holding them adapt to that task, not the other way around.

Summary: creativity experts have been using smart hierarchies for ages.

In the end these so called flat systems are just trying to replicate a creative workshop on a broader scale. Instead of a system that makes centralised decisions and then pushes them down through a ridged chain of command you push decision making power to the widest possible group and allow staff to self organise based on the needs of the task. The system acts as a facilitator rather than a controlling force, ensuring that the focus remains on the task and that the hierarchies that do form are not allowed to calcify.

Not only does this system allow a company to be more agile and more creative, it also supports very human needs. As Daniel Pink points out in his very enjoyable TED Talk, what people need in their work to feel motivated is not necessarily money and not even by and large power and status (though clearly these motivate some people more than is healthy). What people need is:

– Autonomy
– Mastery
– Purpose

Smart hierarchies depend, first of all, on purpose as a driver. A well defined and meaningful purpose is a fundamental for people to self organise. Then you have autonomy. People can make decisions for themselves based on what they know and what they can do which not only ensures a better fit between role and resource but also makes staff feel motivated. Finally, we are all driven to mastery but traditional hierarchies don’t allow the kind of fluid movement that enables consistent learning. Dumb hierarchies are best at keeping things the same. But people change and learn at different rates.

Smart hierarchies respond to human needs rather than expecting humans to respond to the needs of the hierarchy. They place the task at the centre and enable people to choose the level of challenge they feel they can handle and share out individual responsibilities in a way that makes sense on the ground, not theoretically on an org chart.

Summary: smart hierarchies are human centric and make people happier and more productive.

It’s a joy and a frustration, depending on your state of mind, that there are no really new ideas. These smart hierarchies are an extension of the kinds of systems smaller groups have used to enhance creative problem solving. But, as Seth Godin says, ideas aren’t like other commodities, when you steal them you don’t deprive the world, you enrich it.

Summary: Seth Godin is cool.

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