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).

Jamie Notter