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Why Hierarchies Can Outperform Networks (And Vice Versa)

2023 July 2

I still remember the bright autumn day in 2014 when I turned off of the main road in Exton, Pennsylvania onto a remote path. I was going to meet Brian J. Robertson, the creator of a hot new “flat” management approach called Holacracy. I was skeptical, because it seemed to be a cumbersome way to go about governance, but I was open to learning about it.

Many companies, most famously Zappos, were enthusiastically adopting it and there was no shortage of hype among the punditry about abolishing hierarchies. Brian, for his part, was gracious and patient with me, explaining how and why everything worked. Still, I had my doubts and remained unconvinced.

Recently, Stanford’s Bob Sutton pointed to Ronnie Lee’s research that confirmed my (and his) suspicions. While flatter structures can promote creativity, we need hierarchies to execute well. The truth is that hierarchies form naturally and, rather than trying to ignore that basic fact, we need to design enterprises with hierarchical networks in mind.

Evolution, Religion and Leadership

It’s become common today for many, especially in the academic world, to dismiss religion as the product of ancient superstition. Yet in The Righteous Mind, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt makes a powerful case that it plays an important evolutionary role. “There is now a great deal of evidence that religions do in fact help groups to cohere, solve free rider problems and win the competition for group-level survival,” he wrote.

So while many pundits often portray bureaucratic hierarchies as an anachronistic byproduct of the industrial revolution, it seems significant that religions tend to have hierarchical structures. Even religious activities that can be done individually, such as Buddhist meditation, are often led by someone who has an elevated group status.

So it stands to reason that hierarchy plays a similar governance role in organizations, helping to coordinate group activity by setting priorities, establishing basic rules and norms and, when needed, providing impetus to change direction and adapt to external events. Clearly, these are essential governance functions in any enterprise.

Many would say that, in an increasingly digital environment that helps us communicate and coordinate across boundaries of time and space, we simply don’t need the same levels of bureaucratic governance that we used to. However, what Professor Lee found in the startups he researched was that the levels of hierarchy increased significantly over the last 50 years, most probably due to the greater levels of complexity involved in work.

It’s important to note that, even after years of hype, it’s hard to find examples of successful non-hierarchical organizations. Even the rare exceptions, such as the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, aren’t quite as flat in how they organize work as it would first seem. Zappos would eventually back away from Holacracy as would other early adopters, such as Medium.

Hierarchies Are Networks

The term “network” is often misconstrued. In management circles, it is often used to mean an organic, unfathomable, amorphous structure, but really a network is just any system of nodes connected by links.  So, in that sense, any conceivable organizational structure is a network, even a typically hierarchical organizational chart.

The important question is what kind of networks do we want our organizations to be? If we look at the evidence from thousands of years of human civilization, we’d have to conclude that some sort of command and control mechanism is needed. At the same time, as our competitive environment becomes more complex, we want information to be able to go to where it is needed without getting stuck in leadership bottlenecks.

A bit of network science can be helpful here. For functional purposes, networks have two salient characteristics: clustering and path length. Clustering refers to the degree to which a network is made up of tightly knit groups while path length is a measure of social distance—the average number of links separating any two nodes in the network.

Ideally our organizational networks would have a high degree of clustering—to promote close collaboration and teamwork—as well as short path lengths so that information can get from one part of the enterprise to any other part with speed and efficiency. Intuitively, it seems like those two priorities  are in conflict. However, thanks to some breakthroughs in network science in the late 90s, we know that such “small world” networks are not only achievable, but common.

What’s really important isn’t how your organizational chart is constructed, but how you design for connection and there are some common sense ways to do that.

Understanding Formal And Informal Structures

Every organization has both formal and informal structures. For example, while ostensibly open source communities have little formal organization, in practice they are very hierarchical, with high-status individuals driving the direction of the project. At the same time, even in a formal organization, there are informal relationships as when, say, you work in sales and your brother-in-law works in logistics in a very different part of the company.

Network scientists call people who link disparate networks in an organization boundary spanners and they are crucial for maintaining culture as an organization grows. Once you understand the importance of boundary spanners, you can start redesigning programs and platforms to optimize for connection.

There are a number of ways to network your organization by optimizing organizational platforms for connection. Facebook’s Engineering Bootcamp found that “bootcampers tend to form bonds with their classmates who joined near the same time and those bonds persist even after each has joined different teams.” At Experian, leadership found that a biking club led to boundary spanning collaborations at work, so they helped more clubs to get organized.

One striking example of how even small tweaks can improve connectivity is a project done at a bank’s call center. When it was found that a third of variation in productivity could be attributed to informal communication outside of meetings, the bank arranged for groups to go on coffee break together, increasing productivity by as much as 20% while improving employee satisfaction at the same time.

Perhaps most famously, Steve Jobs designed the headquarters both at Apple and Pixar to encourage random collisions among employees. It seems we’ve been asking the wrong question. The problem isn’t how we dismantle hierarchies, but how we connect them.

Leading Hierarchical Networks

For decades we’ve been hearing that we need to eliminate bureaucracy and break down silos. Yet there is little evidence of any success. In fact, when management guru Gary Hamel, who has been leading the call to “bust bureaucracy,” surveyed readers at Harvard Business Review he found that levels of organization had increased, not decreased.

The inescapable conclusion is that we’ve failed to do away with hierarchies because they serve a useful purpose. We need them. In much the same way, the much maligned “silos” form around centers of capability as a result of close collaboration. These are good things. We don’t want to eliminate them, we want to support and empower them.

So instead of trying to break down silos, we need to connect them. Network science tells us that it takes just a small amount of boundary spanning “random connections,” in order to bring social distance crashing down. We can’t just look at organizational charts, but need to focus on how meaningful relationships form in the real world.

The role of leadership in organizations has changed. It is no longer merely to plan and direct work, but to inspire meaning and empower belief. As I wrote in Cascades, the key to transformational change is small groups, loosely connected by united by a shared purpose. The job of leaders today is to help those groups connect and forge a common purpose.

If we are to lead effectively in an increasingly ecosystem-driven world, we need to empower networked hierarchies.

Greg Satell is Co-Founder of ChangeOS, a transformation & change advisory, an international keynote speaker, and bestselling author of Cascades: How to Create a Movement that Drives Transformational Change. His previous effort, Mapping Innovation, was selected as one of the best business books of 2017. You can learn more about Greg on his website, and follow him on Twitter @DigitalTonto

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