Tag: hierarchy

Human societies, hierarchy, and networks

Human societies and cultures are complex and messy. That means if we want to even begin to start understanding them, we need to simplify. This approach from Harold Jarche, based on David Ronfeldt’s work, is interesting:

Our current triform society is based on families/communities, a public sector, and a private market sector. But this form, dominated by Markets is unable to deal with the complexities we face globally — climate change, pollution, populism/fanaticism, nuclear war, etc. A quadriform society would be primarily guided by the Network form of organizing. We are making some advances in that area but we still have challenges getting beyond nation states and financial markets.

This diagram sums up why I find it so difficult to work within hierarchies: while they’re our default form of organising, they’re just not very good at dealing with complexity.

Source: Harold Jarche

Hierarchies and large organisations

This 2008 post by Paul Graham, re-shared on Hacker News last week, struck a chord:

What’s so unnatural about working for a big company? The root of the problem is that humans weren’t meant to work in such large groups.

Another thing you notice when you see animals in the wild is that each species thrives in groups of a certain size. A herd of impalas might have 100 adults; baboons maybe 20; lions rarely 10. Humans also seem designed to work in groups, and what I’ve read about hunter-gatherers accords with research on organizations and my own experience to suggest roughly what the ideal size is: groups of 8 work well; by 20 they’re getting hard to manage; and a group of 50 is really unwieldy.

I really enjoyed working at the Mozilla Foundation when it was around 25 people. By the time it got to 60? Not so much. It’s potentially different with every organisation, though, and how teams are set up.

Graham goes on to talk about how, in large organisations, people are split into teams and put into a hierarchy. That means that groups of people are represented at a higher level by their boss:

A group of 10 people within a large organization is a kind of fake tribe. The number of people you interact with is about right. But something is missing: individual initiative. Tribes of hunter-gatherers have much more freedom. The leaders have a little more power than other members of the tribe, but they don’t generally tell them what to do and when the way a boss can.

[…]

[W]orking in a group of 10 people within a large organization feels both right and wrong at the same time. On the surface it feels like the kind of group you’re meant to work in, but something major is missing. A job at a big company is like high fructose corn syrup: it has some of the qualities of things you’re meant to like, but is disastrously lacking in others.

These words may come back to haunt me, but I have no desire to work in a huge organisation. I’ve seen what it does to people — and Graham seems to agree:

The people who come to us from big companies often seem kind of conservative. It’s hard to say how much is because big companies made them that way, and how much is the natural conservatism that made them work for the big companies in the first place. But certainly a large part of it is learned. I know because I’ve seen it burn off.

Perhaps there’s a happy medium? A four-day workweek gives scope to either work on a ‘side hustle’, volunteer, or do something that makes you happier. Maybe that’s the way forward.

Source: Paul Graham

Rethinking hierarchy

This study featured on the blog of the Stanford Graduate School of Business talks about the difference between hierarchical and non-hierarchical structures. It cites work by Lisanne van Bunderen from University of Amsterdam, who found that egalitarianism seemed to lead to better performance:

“The egalitarian teams were more focused on the group because they felt like ‘we’re in the same boat, we have a common fate,’” says van Bunderen. “They were able to work together, while the hierarchical team members felt a need to fend for themselves, likely at the expense of others.”

Context, of course, is vital. One place where hierarchy and a command-and-control approach seems impotant is in high stakes situations such as the battlefield or hospital operating theatres during delicate operations. Lindred Greer, a professor of organizational behavior at Stanford Graduate School of Business, nevertheless believes that, even in these situations, the amount of hierarchy can be reduced:

In some cases, hierarchy is an unavoidable part of the work. Greer is currently studying the interaction between surgeons and nurses, and surgeons lead by necessity. “If you took the surgeon out of the operating room, you would have some issues,” she says. But surgeons’ dominance in the operating room can also be problematic, creating dysfunctional power dynamics. To help solve this problem, Greer believes that the expression of hierarchy can be moderated. That is, surgeons can learn to behave in a way that’s less hierarchical.

While hierarchy is necessary in some situations, what we need is a more fluid approach to organising, as I’ve written about recently. The article gives the very practical example of Navy SEALs:

Navy SEALS exemplify this idea. Strict hierarchy dominates out in the field: When a leader says go left, they go left. But when the team returns for debrief, “they literally leave their stripes at the door,” says Greer. The hierarchy disappears; nobody is a leader, nobody a follower. “They fluidly shift out of these hierarchical structures,” she says. “It would be great if business leaders could do this too: Shift from top-down command to a position in which everyone has a say.” Importantly, she reiterated, this kind of change is not only about keeping employees happy, but also about enhancing performance and benefiting the bottom line.

Like the article’s author, I’m still looking for something that’s going to gain more traction than Holacracy. Perhaps the sociocratic approach could work well, but does require people to be inducted into it. After all, hierarchy and capitalism is what we’re born into these days. It feels ‘natural’ to people.

Source: Stanford Graduate School of Business (via Stowe Boyd)