Circle The Wagons

It is likely that you share at least one trait with tribal chiefs, royal monarchs, military commanders and many CEOs–your organization or agency’s power is centralized, and flows from the top down in a series of levels ending at the “front line.” In fact, despite being “of the people, by the people, for the people,” our own democratic government displays this tendency. The president is commander-in-chief, issuing executive orders to myriad federal agencies, while Congress has its majority and minority leaders, whips and an elaborate seniority system.

The principal advantage of what is known as the hierarchical structure (see Figure 1) is that it (potentially) enables its leader to make quick decisions, unencumbered by stubborn opposition or lengthy debate. Of course, that same strength is also its main weakness: the disastrous consequences of a leader’s ill-considered, knee-jerk or arbitrary decisions are legendary. However competent, even the best leader can’t be an expert in all matters.

Another of a hierarchy’s weaknesses is its tendency toward bureaucracy, in which individuals at all levels of the structure seek to protect their own positional power by formalizing and regimenting their procedures (paperwork), resisting change (inertia), and expanding their size (larger budgets, more employees). Instead of working together as a team, each department competes against the others, and cutting through the bureaucracy has become a time-honored (but seldom successful) battle-cry of reformers of many stripes.

As entrenched as hierarchy may be, however, three more recent trends–flexibility, right-sizing and employee preference for autonomy–are challenging its dominance, setting the stage for the introduction of two alternative forms of structuring an organization or agency: heterarchy, and emergent.

Forming A Heterarchy

In this modern economy, it’s no longer enough for hierarchy to empower a leader to make quick decisions; they have to be the correct quick decisions, based on direct and immediate information gathered at the front line. Within the typical bureaucratic hierarchy, information is filtered as it passes (or doesn’t pass) through the normal channels to and from the leader’s desk, influenced by bureaucrats’ competing interests.

This sequence slows and may alter information and action. Regardless of how quickly the leader actually makes an important decision, it will be implemented too late if the issue has been “caught in the system” for any length of time. This inflexibility eventually proves fatal as the organization consistently is out-maneuvered by more nimble competitors.

Second, as organizations of all types (public, non-profit, market) move to the entrepreneurial model, maintaining an abundance of employees has become unaffordable. One solution has been to reduce one or more layers of hierarchy in an effort to streamline organizational payrolls (after all, labor represents 80 percent of the typical organization’s expenses).

Agencies now are pressured to outsource, offshore, contract, de-layer, and downsize to find their workforce’s “right-size.” This lean and mean structure is referred to as a heterarchy, and addresses both flexibility and economic necessity (see Figure 2). Fewer employees reduce both payroll costs and influence on the decision-making process, and the elimination of layers facilitates internal communication and implementation.

Nevertheless, a heterarchy continues to feature the hierarchy’s centralized leader who, as mentioned earlier, is not expected to be knowledgeable about everything, and in the worst-case scenario, might not know much about anything. This is where the third structure emerges.

An Emergent Structure

In the same way hierarchy is reflected in military rank, the emergent structure is equivalent to the fabled Knights of the Round Table (see Figure 3). Within this arrangement, all agency personnel sit at the table, are considered equals regardless of their actual rank, and have a right to contribute to the discussion and to vote on any decisions. More importantly, however, is that each of the members is an expert in at least one of the crucial issues that an organization or agency might face.

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