The Trouble with Hierarchy

In one of the (many!) amazing "Big Idea" posts that have been going around, Scott Briscoe on Acronym talks about hierarchy. Scott says we shouldn't hate hierarchy–we should hate the lack of leadership from people at the top of the hierarchy. Good leaders, he argues, will empower staff so they end up not complaining about hierarchy because it doesn't get in the way.

I agree there's room for better leadership, but I pushed back in the comments arguing that the system and structure will often trump the good intentions of individuals in authority positions. And I disagreed with his suggestion that without hierarchy you waste an inordinate amount of time trying to figure out who gets to make what decision. That could happen, of course, but I could probably throw the "not with good leaders" argument back at him!

As usual, though, I think Scott and I have more overlapping thoughts on this subject than conflicting ones. Hierarchy serves a real purpose, as does open collaboration and problem solving. Organizations have both because they both are in service of the enterprise getting things done and being effective. But I push back against hierarchy because in general its reality is falling WAY short of its intention, and not just because of ineffective individuals. Hierarchy in organizations was designed in a completely different era. We don't have to get rid of it, but we need to address its weaknesses in a deep way, not a "tweaking" way and not in a "but a new individual leader will do it differently" way.

Hierarchy is to organizational effectiveness, as strategic planning is to strategy. It explains and documents things in simple, objective and measurable ways…and it sucks.

And just like strategic planning isn't "the problem," hierarchy isn't the problem either. The frame of the debate gets in the way of insight in both cases (please let's not start a "hierarchy is dead" conversation).

Hierarchy simply is, but my issue is that we are over-reliant on hierarchy in most organizations, and we are weak in our capacity to get the right people together to solve the right problems. That doesn't mean we need to get rid of hierarchy, but I think there is some potential in doing that at least temporarily in order to develop some insight about how to better solve our work problems. Kind of like the example I gave as a comment to Maddie's big idea post about getting rid of internal email. One company did that for 48 hours so they could learn other ways of doing things that (it turned out) were more effective.

Get rid of hierarchy so you can learn why you really need hierarchy (and where you were just relying on it as a crutch).


  1. 17.12.2009 at 10:33 am

    Hi Jamie,
    I agree with your post. Hierarchies are not the problem. It is our lack of understanding of their natural properties that leaves us suffering at their hands rather than using them as a tool to get work done.
    Long story short, if we are going to build a bridge, we have to understand the its purpose and then review the structural properties of our building material options to see what’s fit for purpose.
    Right now, we lack a collective understanding of the properties of work and human capability. In order to build an organization that is structurally sound, we must understand its purpose and that will point to a certain work level of complexity. This will then point to how many levels the organization should have. Each level is different and each has a role. (like H2O can be steam, water and ice)
    When you create too many levels you end up with work being bogged down. When you create too few layers (like the damn the hierarchy crowd would purport), you end up with translation issues. People stuck like deer in the headlights because they do not have enough context to get their work done.
    There is a model that provides work levels and human capability theory that can then be converted into engineering principles to design a structurally sound organization. It’s Elliott Jaques’ Requisite Organization. He wrote a HBR paper called, “In Praise of Hierarchy”.
    My blog, Mission Minded Management, is rooted in the model, the theory behind it, it’s practical application, and the dysfunction that occurs when we unwittlingly violate the design principles.
    I encourage you to read my post: Requisite Organization Design – Flat ain’t all that – but neither is Fat.

  2. 21.01.2010 at 3:02 am

    Jamie, Excellent post! Michelle, I totally agree with the points you and Jamie have touched! Learned a great deal!