hierarchies in perpetual beta

I have said many times that teamwork is overrated. It can be a smoke screen for office bullies to coerce fellow workers. The economic stick often hangs over the team: be a team player or lose your job, is the implication in many workplaces. One of my main concerns with teams is that people are placed on them by those holding hierarchical power and are then told to work together (or else). However, there are usually power plays internal to the team so that being a team player really means doing what the leader says. For example, I know many people who work in call centres and I have heard how their teams are often quite dysfunctional. Teamwork too often just means towing the party line.

teamwork.001One solution to hierarchical teams are self-forming teams. Many of the companies described in the book, Reinventing Organizations, are based on the principle of self-organization where hierarchies are temporary, negotiated structures. Bosses are often voted on by their peers. Self-organizing teams are much more flexible than hierarchical ones, but they require active and engaged members. One cannot cede power to the boss, because everyone is responsible for the boss they chose. Like democracy, self-organized teams are hard work. But they are best to deal with complexity. As I have said before, hierarchies work well when information flows mostly in one direction: down. They are good for command and control. They are handy to get things done in small groups. But hierarchies are rather useless to create, innovate, or change.

Our challenge is not to banish hierarchies, but to balance them with open systems, properly guided,” says Ed Morrison. A network perspective is needed to see how teams and hierarchies should work, according to Eugene Eric Kim.

Networks are not a rejection of hierarchy. Networks are a rejection of rigidity. A hierarchy is an efficient form of decision-making, as long as it’s the “right” hierarchy. Powerful networks allow the right hierarchies to emerge at the right time.

But hierarchies are attractive, so they are not likely to go away soon, according to Professor Jeffery Pfeffer.

“There’s this belief that we are all living in some postmodernist, egalitarian, merit-based paradise and that everything is different in companies now,” he says. “But in reality, it’s not.” In fact, in a new paper that explores the notion that power structures haven’t changed much over time, Pfeffer explains that the way organizations operate today actually reflects hundreds of years of hierarchical power structures, and remains unchanged because these structures “can be linked to survival advantages” in the workplace. The beliefs and behaviors that go along with them, he writes, are ingrained in our collective, corporate DNA.

Pfeffer says that “relationships with bosses still matter for people’s job tenure and opportunities, as do networking skills.” The job (salaried employment) is the key factor that will change the nature of work teams. As long as people have jobs, we will have hierarchical teams. The job is premised on the assumption that people can fit into existing teams like cogs in a machine and that team members can be easily replaced.

We already have other ways of organizing work. Orchestras are not teams; neither are jazz ensembles. There may be teamwork on a theatre production but the cast is not a team. It is more like a social network. Hierarchical teams are what we get when we use the blunt stick of economic consequences as the prime motivator. In a complex and creative economy, the unity of hierarchical teams can be counter-productive, as it shuts off opportunities for serendipity and potential innovation.

We are moving into a post-job economy, something that business school professors seem to be ignoring. Work will become much more complex and multifaceted than a simplistic model of Homo Economicus can address. Those of us who do not have jobs are already working in self-organized teams. Look to the edge cases to see the future. Hierarchies will become temporary arrangements to get things done. The future will be hierarchies in perpetual Beta.


9 Responses to “hierarchies in perpetual beta”

  1. Niels Pflaeging

    Dear Harold, dear all,

    I am happy to see you picked up on our email conversation, Harold. Congratulations on the writing, as always!

    I would like to argue, however, to frame the problem somewhat differently, and that teams or teamwork are not the problem at all, but that we should use appropriate terms for more clarity. (In my white paper and book Organize for Complexity, this distinction is included as well, by the way, so for more take a look here: http://www.slideshare.net/npflaeging/special-edition-paper-organize-for-complexity-part-iii)
    My suggestion is not to use the term “hierarchical team” to describe the insufficient status quo in most orgs, but the term “group”. Group means: working up (for bosses), being governed from above, working in parallel, being functionally differentiated. Team, on the other hand, means: working outwards (for internal or external clients), being self-organized, working for-each-other-with-each-other, being functionally integrated. Team is something totally different than groups, and usually today groups are mistaken for teams. Let´s stop bashing teams, let´s start creating them!
    There is more to say about hierarchies and the 1.000 silly things that are being claimed with regards to them or their elimination. Here, it may suffice to say that 99% of those talking about hierarchy mistake it for “power”, and then come to nonsensical conclusions. But hierarchy is just one of three foms of power in any organization. For more, let´s open another discussion here… 😉

    I look forward to more dialog on this! Regards, Niels

  2. Niels Pflaeging

    I just read Jeffrey Pfeffers texts on the matter of power and hierarchy. Admittedly, I am an admirer of at least 50% of his work, but his book on the subject of power was horrible, if not totally misguided and uninspired. His thinking on the subject hasn´t improved much since that book, if I may say so… 🙁


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