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Hierarchy in Progressive Organisations

I still think many organisations today haven’t yet found their stride with respect to hierarchy.

There’s the outdated “single tree” of omni-managers that too many organisations still default to; there have been multiple attempts at “flat” that fell accordingly; and more recently some “matrix” style ones. Classic “thesis, antithesis and synthesis” – first you reject it, then you transcend it. But we’re not quite in nirvana yet.

This layman with little book smarts on the topic (and a slant towards small tech companies) thinks that

  1. rather than rejecting hierarchy tout court we ought to recognise there are multiple hierarchies;
  2. they have to align with peer recognition if they are to be effective (helps if they’re built bottom-up); and
  3. they are to be kept separate and independent, in the sense that no one should hold responsibility in more than one except at the very top.

If competing tensions are balanced and resolved in the confines of someone’s brain, that’s not open to scrutiny, is even more vulnerable to biases and their respective after-rationalisations or simple neglect. Not to mention the burden it may place on them. Only through open verbal articulation of those fundamental dimensions of the business that are naturally at tension can we challenge the existing balances and keep the organisation tuned to its context and mission.

In product-focused tech companies I see the technical “how to do it” of engineering principles and tech choices; the delivery “what to do” of product vision and feature prioritisation and the always present HR “with whom” of nurturing the relationship with the employee. At the top they converge where the buck stops: the CEO.

Conflate the first two and you’ll risk having either an organisation that prioritises delivery at the expense of technical sustainability or one that is building a beautifully-engineered white elephant.

Conflate the last two and you’ll risk having either an organisation that whips people into cranking out feature after feature until they leave or one cushy place whose achievements are the product of brownian motion.

Conflate the first and last and you’ll risk having either an up-or-out ivory tower or an organisation with very nice people that falls into a collective form of the Dunning-Kruger effect.

Conflate all three and you’ll get the mess we’re in.