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Why is reducing hierarchy, despite it's problems, not enough?

Hierarchy is not the problem. As such, a flatter structure alone won’t prepare an organisation to tackle today’s challenges because there is far more to questions of authority and power than structural design. Hierarchy gets a lot of attention because it has been addressed by corporates before and is a fairly easy target: it’s easy to visualise and not too complicated to change. So we can mislead ourselves into believing we’ve addressed the problem when the problem in fact remains.

Hierarchy isn’t off the hook

Nevertheless, as a contributing concern, hierarchy absolutely needs addressing. There are often too many layers of authority and too much operational and emotional distance between Senior Leaders and core work units. Reducing this structural distance creates more personal relationship and understanding and fewer people are then subjected to targets, control and management-by-objectives (see: "What is management-by-objectives?"). It also encourages employees to:

  • Feel less at risk when speaking up
  • Express their creativity and humanity
  • Explore the wisdom of their peers instead of the wisdom of the elite
  • Be free of bureaucratic holdups

But, generally speaking, multitudinous layers are the more immediate concern, as opposed to layers in their entirety. We are not likely to end up without layers; chances are, we shall always work for someone, somewhere.

Flatter doesn’t mean fewer dictators

Flat structures are perfectly capable of retaining an over controlling culture. If you ask the core workers in an organisation where a flattening, or decentralisation has occurred, then chances are you will find an organisation that has merely pushed its culture of control down a level. Rather than having one dictator, there are now a (many) more of them! The same can be true of organisations that have restructured around smaller teams.

Flatter doesn’t mean "better"

Reducing a hierarchy doesn’t necessarily increase people’s willingness to build a socially and environmentally positive organisation. If it was destructive before, then destructive it can certainly remain. There may (theoretically) be fewer people in the way of pursuing an idea but if the culture doesn't prioritise those kinds of concerns then low priority they shall stay.

Flatter doesn’t mean equity

Flattening has a habit of being focused on the lower levels of an organisation. As such, in a restructuring exercise, it is not uncommon to find the more senior levels of management have mostly, if not entirely, avoided this change.  An inconsistent approach to structural change will not have a positive impact, particularly as the rest of the organisation watches on whilst those in power maintain their relative security.

Think “network” rather than “flat”

Ultimately, however, 21st Century Organisations are not defined by the absence of hierarchy or the simple presence of decentralisation; they are more like networks than flat structures or status quo hierarchies. They are living communities with some guiding principles and a collective commitment to a common purpose. This is much more akin to the behaviour of a human community, such as a city, or a natural ecosystem, such as a woodland, than it is a decentralised business.

“There’s not much chance for serendipity if reporting relationships and job definitions force people to work with the same small cluster of colleagues for months at a time.”

Gary Hamel, The Future of Management

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  1. John Featherby

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