I think I have always been averse to hierarchies, yet I joined the Army and entered the most hierarchical organization in the country. I graduated from military college and began my career as an infantry officer. Career progression was through promotion, based on yearly performance reviews.
It was supposed to be a meritocracy but was much more tribal. Having a senior officer looking after your career was a great help. I did not have that. I also bored easily and it was the Cold War with us fighting fictional Soviet troops on the Canadian prairies. So I decided to leave the infantry and transfer to the medical services, where I thought I would do more practical work.
On transferring, and removing all the the accoutrements of my regiment, I quickly found out that I was a different person. Well at least I was treated differently by my fellow officers. First of all, I had abandoned my tribe and was now an outcast. Other combat arms officers treated me as if I could never understand the profession of arms, because I was wearing a medical badge.
Those inside the medical services saw me as a stranger. I had been told I was joining a multidisciplinary team of medical professionals, but really I was there to handle anything the medical officers (physicians) did not want to do. Again, I thought that doing a good job would be enough. It was not.
After four years with the medical services I was posted to a job at defence headquarters that did not really exist. My superiors wanted to send me back to Canada, as my unit in Germany was down-sizing. There was no real position open, so one was created for me.
I went to work, sat in my office, and had about an hour’s worth of administration to do in the course of a day. They say that if you want to drive a person crazy, give him nothing to do. I was under orders to go to work each day, but there was little work to do.
I was able to pick up some French writing courses that kept me busy, and I also started doing some personal career planning. With 15 years of service, I was only five years away from a small pension, so financially it made sense to stay in the military. I was able, once again, to transfer to another branch of the services: training development.
I threw myself into my new profession, reading whatever I could, picking up courses, implementing the frameworks of change management, instructional systems design, and human performance technology. I also went back to school to complete a Master’s degree in education. I developed significant expertise in the learning aspects of flight simulation. But five years later I realized that no matter how good I was, I would only be respected for my rank, not my knowledge or ability.
As a junior officer, my role in the hierarchy was to implement policy, not think about the big picture. Systems thinking was, ‘beyond my pay grade’, as they would say. So I decided it was time to leave the services.
The Friday afternoon I turned in my military identification card, I dropped by the officers’ mess to say one last good-bye. I had a drink with a college acquaintance who was now a Colonel, whereas I had been a Captain, three ranks below. Now that I was a civilian, I noticed that finally I could have a real, human conversation with a senior officer.
In far too many instances, my recommendations at work had been ignored because someone senior to me disagreed. In the military the hierarchy is always visible with rank insignia. Suddenly, I had no rank, and could no longer be put into a box by my fellow officers. My last conversation in that officers’ mess was my best. Over the years, many people have asked how long it took me to make the transition from military to civilian life. In my case, it was about 24 hours.
The fact that I had three careers inside the military (not normal at the time) is probably the main reason I was able to serve 21 years. I had a horizontal, rather than a vertical, career. This put me in a good position for future career changes — working at a university and at a web technology company, and then as a freelancer serving multiple industries.
It was as a free-agent that I was finally able to work in an environment that was as close to a meritocracy as possible. Life outside a hierarchy requires multiple skills and perspectives, which my varied past had prepared me for. It had also taught me a certain degree of humility, as I had little rank to force my will on others.
For the past twelve years I have been working in an overlapping network of networks. In my professional networks each node and relationship is unique. Some of the relationships have been formalized, such as with the Internet Time Alliance, Adjuvi, and EthosVO. But each is founded on a two-way flow of power and authority based on knowledge, trust, and credibility, that is the core of Jon Husband’s wirearchy.
Perhaps this is why I have written about 200 posts on wirearchy here. It just makes sense to me. In each of my careers, I had hoped for a two-way flow of power and trust with my colleagues, but often it was not the case. Someone would always use positional power to get their way.
I firmly believe that the more we can remove positional power from organizations, the more human they will become. I know that I have felt more engaged, and have been more creative, as a single node in my various networks, than in any hierarchical organization.
In the recent report on The Future of Work, the authors list three key findings from their research:
- The biggest fundamental shift in capacity is in freeing people to do their best … the future of work is moving from hierarchy to wirearchy.
- Engagement – and how we approach employees’ relationship with a company – is so horribly incomplete that it is dangerous to leaders who rely on it.
- The future of work is personal. Very personal. The hardest and most important work in the future of work centers on one detail: personal accountability in decision-making.
All organizations should be built on “a dynamic two-way flow of power and authority, based on knowledge, trust, credibility and a focus on results, enabled by interconnected people and technology”. Can anyone, other than a sociopath, see any reason why they should not?