more like people

helping organisations to be more like people

Five reasons – in no particular order – why hierarchy sucks

Thursday, June 7th, 2012

While writing a piece for the book on just this subject, I realised I’d never put all the things I don’t like about hierarchy in one clear place… nor seen it done succinctly elsewhere. So here’s my non-comprehensive polemic on why I think hierarchy is about the worst default setting we could pick for our organisations…

Chichen Itza
FACT: Organisations that build pyramids are less resilient than their counterparts

Few concepts are as ingrained in our institutions as that of hierarchy. We assume that someone will have final say, that we always report to someone, that someone should be earning more than someone else…

But when it comes down to it, hierarchy doesn’t sit that well with the core values of most progressive people, even if we practice it in countless settings on a day-to-day basis.

I don’t think we need to accept it as a ‘necessary evil’, undermining our lived visions of the world any more. But that’s what the book’s about. Here’s why hierarchy sucks:

It assumes the worst of people, and thus is likely to foster the worst in them

From the basic premise of having to ‘start at the bottom and work your way up’, hierarchy doesn’t give any of us the credit to be able to do the amazing things that people constantly demonstrate the ability to do, irrespective of where they might fall on an organisational chart.

More practically though, hierarchy denies us the autonomy to use our judgment and figure things out in our own ways.

Formalising accountability – especially when it only flows in one direction – breaks down trust, because it assumes we won’t be honest about our strengths and weaknesses.

If we can’t be honest with each other, this is what we need to look at understanding, rather than creating structures that make it harder to develop a shared sense of collective accountability for what we do.

It creates power dynamics that foster dishonesty and poor information sharing/coordination/learning

By centralising power and control, you distribute the desire for power and control. When power and control are more evenly shared, there is less reason for most people to want more of it.

Everyone needs to make themselves look better than someone else, if they want to progress their career, improve their income, etc. The hierarchy pits individual interest, against the shared/collective interest, which can’t be a good thing for any organisation that hopes to have some kind of future.

It expects its leaders to be superheroes

It elevates individuals to positions in which the unattainable is expected of them. Because their job title is ‘x’, they are expected to do ‘y’… A promotion to ‘w’ means they are expected to do ‘y+1’… which makes sense… until it doesn’t.

Many argue that the people in leadership positions of massive multinational institutions can in no meaningful way know enough about their organisation to justify the difference between their salaries and the salaries of those below them. The rises follow a linear progression, but have no grounding in practical reality. At a certain stage ‘y+1’ becomes the straw that broke the camel’s back, surpassing human ability, or the number of hours in a day, and becoming inherently unachievable. But we pretend this isn’t the case, and all the ‘failed’ leaders have failed due to their own shortcomings, not something inherent to our expectations of them.

It pretends we live in a linear and controllable world that only exists as a Fordian fantasy, wasting heaps of time

Strategic planning suggests that if you get the correct executives in an expensive enough room for an extended period of time, you will be able to predict the future.

Important people (according to the hierarchy) spend a great deal of time together in organisations, writing documents which declare, in spite of everything outside their walls: ‘A will lead to B will lead to C’.

Additionally, they write further documents to detail how others will ensure that A will lead to B will lead to C.

And then something unexpected happens – as it invariably does – and all their hard work is at best swept aside, and at worse, followed to a T, in spite of a radically changed reality.

When reality strikes, it should make crystal clear that those in the institution who are receiving the largest proportionate amount of its resources, do not have a crystal ball than can plan for any eventuality. By nature of having been elevated to a certain plateau, these individuals have not achieved a superhuman ability to understand all the parts of a complex system.

It denies the centrality of context, assuming that the best decisions can be made from outside the contexts they will be applied in

If we think the best decisions can be made by the people furthest away from their application, we’ve got another thing coming…

The theory that enough information will ‘trickle-up’, from-street-to-suite, to give those who have never experienced the situations they are making decisions for, enough understanding to do a good job, is basically nuts and is not remotely grounded in the experiences of the real world, from sector-to-sector.

Given what we know about how information moves through hierarchical systems (see the first two points), we can’t really believe such systems provide the stuff of good decision making, can we?

Good decisions must be grounded in the realities they will apply to. This is also why ‘scaling up’ of good local ideas almost never works; context is everything, and replacing particular situations and relationships with others and expecting the results to be the same, only makes sense if you are far enough from the ground, for the critical details to have become invisible.

…What have I missed? What is unfair generalisation? What am I misattributing blame for?

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Organisational culture: It doesn’t shape itself

Friday, March 23rd, 2012

Leadership and the new scienceMargaret Wheatley, in ‘Leadership and the new science’, writes about ‘fields’, as they apply to organisational culture.

In science, fields are the in-between forces that are only visible through their impact. Gravity, for example, cannot be seen or measured, yet we experience its manifestations throughout our lives.

Wheatley applies the same thinking to organisational culture; it affects us, it shapes our experiences and our behaviours, but we can’t easily put a finger on what it is, beyond being confident that it definitely exists.

Reading Wheatley’s framing of culture left me thinking; while we might not be able to see or touch gravity, we have found ways to shift it through technology, and we know it is different in different settings. By extending the metaphor, what does this mean for the ‘field’ of workplace culture?

Here is a starting point; what do you think?

You are sitting at your desk. Your colleague two desks away is being served an uncalled-for quantity of verbal abuse by their manager.

It’s uncomfortable. This discomfort is creating, undermining, or reinforcing your understanding of your workplace culture, depending on your experiences there before the incident.

The  next day the same thing happens again. Your perceptions this time are either reinforced, or further undermined.

The kicker? Your behaviour is now most likely being shaped by what you have experienced. You might be a little less open, a little more defensive, slightly less comfortable with the time you spend at the office…

And today you are also sitting beside a new colleague. This is the first time they have played witness to the bullying dynamic, but not only do they see the bully-bullied pair, but also anyone else in the office not standing up for the one being treated unfairly.

This shapes their perception of the situation, as it did yours, which in turn shapes how they engage with their new workplace.

Their perception may well be that much worse than yours, because they have not only witnessed the toxic act of workplace bullying, but also the failure of their new colleagues to say anything against what had happened.

Through each of these experiences, a field is emerging; it is a field of mistrust, guardedness, pragmatic calculation, formed on the basis of both the acts of the manager and corresponding thoughts and reactions of others, which have a strong tendency to reinforce one another, if not consciously challenged.

Protecting ourselves… at the organisation’s expense

While your (or my) response to the initial bullying makes perfect sense at the level of protecting oneself, it also plays to reinforce the field that is taking shape around us. When we ignore or avoid, we are in fact complimenting and reinforcing the negative dynamic through our complicity. In failing to constructively support our colleague, we complicity contribute to the further deterioration of the field that is our organisation’s culture.

But enough of the bad stuff!

So what would the alternative look like? What can we do to shift the field of ‘organisational culture’, to create a workplace where people are happy, enjoy their time together and create good things in the process?

In my experience, it starts with being conscious of ourselves. If we agree that both our perceptions and our actions play a role in shaping the culture around us, what could we do to move it in a positive direction?

The challenge, of course, at the individual level then, is how we can become more aware of our own influences on the field of organisational culture, to help shift it in a way that improves everyone’s (including our own) experience.

Projections and Perceptions

projection perception loopIn the example above, I described how the bullying manager was projecting certain behaviours into the organisational culture field, and how we, as onlookers in the office were both perceiving them, and then acting differently as a result of them. We’ll call this the ‘Projection-Perception Loop’; the system through which behaviour is enacted by one person, interpreted by the second person, and then (often) re-enacted by the second person, creating a cycle that can be either good or bad.

So what happens if we shift our input?

What if we were more aware of the ways we responded when people treated us or others like crap at the office? What if, instead of retreating, or attacking back, we simply started to engage differently?

In destructive situations, we often revert to the old ‘fight or flight’, ‘silence or violence’ dichotomy, but can we be conscious in those moments and find a less destructive ‘third way’? Can we focus on the positive relationships that are there at the office, the elements we enjoy more, rather than giving more attention to the parts of the organisational culture field that we don’t like? Can we improve trust amongst our colleagues by sharing more openly with them, making ourselves a bit vulnerable?

Accepting some responsibility… and thus some credit?

There’s nothing easy about this level of change; it usually involves re-evaluating some very deep gut responses to situations we don’t feel any responsibility for creating.

But if we acknowledge that we have played some small role in making the environment as toxic as we have experienced it can be, can we also take credit for acting differently and thus not perpetuating the cycle again?

Like the old parenting mantra reiterated through generations to the fighting young boys who both claim that the other ‘started it!’, ‘it’s not about who started it, but who finishes it.’

  • What steps can we take or have you taken to break a bad cycle that has helped grow a destructive organisational culture?
  • Have you experienced destructive cycles in any other relationships in your life that you’ve been able to shift the patterns around?
  • What are some of the defining traits when you have experienced a positive ‘field’ of organisational culture?

5 comments

Anarchists in the boardroom

Friday, December 16th, 2011

Are our organisations hearing the lessons of the Occupy movement? If we want to be more human, there’s definitely a thing or two they could be teaching us… [ADDITION: if you’re looking for my book that I ended up re-using this title for, you can find it here.]

Humanize coverI’m reading ‘Humanize: Why people-centric organisations succeed in a social world’. So far it’s excellent! Jamie Notter and Maddie Grant have written the closest thing to a ‘helping organisations to be more like people’ manifesto that I’ve seen. Their understanding of the deeply de-humanising traits of our institutions, as well as the alternatives that social media is beginning to model is spot on! As a bit (lot?) of a management geek, it excites me as much as any book has since the heavily-referenced (by me) ‘Getting to Maybe: How the world is changed’

But it is also misses something. (Every book does – no subject can ever be addressed in its entirety in a single publication.)

The book starts from the radical premise that our rigid, hierarchical organisational structures are unequipped to face the challenges of an increasingly networked world, across all sectors and types of organisations, and that social media is beginning to model alternative, more human ways of getting things done. Ace.

But here’s another step beyond: what if the ways of organising that traditional organisations are learning from social media have been practiced in some circles for many decades before? And what if those who have been practicing them have done so in a world so foreign to management theorists, as to almost not exist?

Introducing, anarchy…

I would argue (maybe unsurprisingly, as I’m writing a book on the theme) that the systems of social media are simply the ‘systems’ of anarchism (or perhaps more succinctly, grassroots activism), scaled-up. Decentralised, non-hierarchical, autonomous, processes of making decisions and getting things done, have been at the core of the current Occupy movement, but also its predecessors in the climate justice and anti-globalisation movements (and many movements before them, too).

This is why these movements have been able to take social media in stride and run with it, while most traditional organisations have superficially embraced new technologies, but actively fought tooth-and-nail against them in most of their practical manifestations.

While some of the initial shock may have worn off, think, from a traditional organisational perspective, how ludicrous the idea that nearly 1000 cities around the world would feature activists encampments in their economic centres, diametrically opposed to the predominant activities taking place in those same places?

Yet, somehow, it has happened.

Tens of thousands of people are being communally fed and sheltered, while carving-out the early etchings of a political alternative to an unsustainable status quo, without any of the management systems we might have thought essential to such an operation… Surely, there’s something managers could take away from this?

Why activists ‘get’ social media

Occupy, like several movements before it in the last decade, are ahead of the curve when it comes to social media, because it comes so naturally to people who have never believed in hierarchy, silos, traditional notions of expertise, or strategic planning. Anarchists skipped that couple century-blip we seem to be at the tail-end of, of ‘humans thinking they can turn a bunch of other humans into a well-oiled machine’.

We are the 99%One of the key messages I’ve taken from my time with these movements has been the value of ‘undefined engagement’ – giving people the chance to get involved in something they truly believe in, in whatever ways they choose to (social media has clear parallels). This is likely to be a massive challenge for traditional organisations – particularly those that exist primarily to make money. But perhaps one of the truly revolutionary lessons that Occupy can bring to the world of business, is that if we want to harness the potential of people, making money will not (on its own) be the way to do it. Purpose is critical, as is an increasing level of autonomy…

So while I absolutely commend Jamie and Maddie’s work on Humanize, I also challenge it to go a step further: learn from the hippies, learn from the anarchists, learn from the folks out on the streets of New York, London, Oakland and so many other cities, who are ‘doing’ Humanize, and have been since before there was social media to put it into the spotlight.

Flipping our notions of ‘expertise’

The world of management has for decades looked down its nose at activists, even when they have achieved massive change in the world, whether ending wars or apartheid, or winning voting or civil rights for all. In doing so, a lot of important learning has been largely ignored.

Maybe it’s time that view was turned around and the organisations that are increasingly struggling to maintain themselves on yesterday’s systems, swallowed their pride and asked a scruffy anarchist what they should be doing differently in the boardroom?

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Celebrating Failure

Thursday, January 20th, 2011

We may not celebrate our successes particularly well in the voluntary and community sectors, but maybe that’s because we’ve stopped believing them? Perhaps if we spent more time actively admitting what’s gone wrong, as the ground-breaking new website, AdmittingFailure.com encourages, we would feel more inclined to celebrate when things really do go well?

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There have been many recurring themes in my time in the voluntary and community sectors. One of these has been the repeated mantra of ‘we are terrible as celebrating our successes!’

On some level, I’ve always agreed with this – for those of us slugging away in often thankless jobs ‘doing good’ in the world, a party, a pat on the back, or some other affirmation of our value is important and shouldn’t be easily dismissed.

However, I’d also like to unpick this one a bit; maybe we fail to celebrate our successes because we declare that everything we do in this sector is ‘successful’? And maybe, when we do so, we stop believing it? And when we stop believing it, maybe we don’t want to make a big deal of each and every supposed success, because doing so would highlight the reality that we’ve been distorting our own narrative, supposedly for funders and donors for so long?

‘Doomed to succeed’

My colleague Titus Alexander once described our sector as ‘doomed to succeed’ – that as soon as our organisations are given money to do something, we are expected to not only achieve, but pass with flying colours, one hundred percent of the time.

And as our income usually hinges on doing so, invariably, we find ways of showing that we do; sometimes this means ‘double-counting’, sometimes cherry-picking ‘easy-win’ beneficiaries, sometimes highlighting one or two of those we’ve supported as being more representative than they really are… whatever it is, we’ve got our ways of making sure whatever we do ‘succeeds’ – at least on paper.

The dangers here are ones I’ve discussed in several blogs before, but primary among them is the impact this has on our ability to learn from our mistakes – namely because we often pretend they aren’t there, or we gloss over them with a selectively told story of what we did working – and working entirely.

The problem is, if we were to read a random selection of most of our organisations’ annual reports, evaluations or publicity documents, we would get the impression that nothing we’ve ever done had not gone perfectly to plan.

Which is basically impossible. But some combination of real and perceived funder/donor pressure tends to keep us from acknowledging this impossibility, allowing us to continue living a whole series of stretched, distorted or otherwise manipulated truths in our working lives.

The research on the importance of mistakes, trial-and-error and learning from things that don’t work is extensive and the conclusions are fairly clear: if you’re afraid of either making or acknowledging your mistakes, you will never do anything new or groundbreaking.

Admitting Failure?

With all of this in mind, my jaw dropped when I read Monday’s Guardian story on Canadian NGO, Engineers Without Borders’ decision to publish a ‘Failure Report’, and launch a website for the international development/aid sector more broadly called, AdmittingFailure.com. It reads:

“By hiding our failures, we are condemning ourselves to repeat them and we are stifling innovation. In doing so, we are condemning ourselves to continue under-performance in the development sector.

Conversely, by admitting our failures – publicly sharing them not as shameful acts, but as important lessons – we contribute to a culture in development where failure is recognized as essential to success.” – AdmittingFailure.com

The site also invites other development/aid orgs around the world to submit their own failures, the idea being that an easily searchable and sharable ‘failure bank’ will emerge, providing a user-generated resource for those looking to, say, implement a change management project in Burkina Faso.

Admitting failure everywhere else in life

At this point I add the critical disclaimer that I’m not just picking on non-profit organisations; the inclination to deny our mistakes and failures is much more widespread than that. We teach it to our kids in schools, our governments do it almost pathologically and the pressures in the private sector to push profit margins all create a similar distorting effect.

Some recent online conversations have got me involved in creating WeScrewedUp.com – a site based on the same principles as AdmittingFailure.com, but applying to our personal lives (work, relationships, families, etc).

We’re also thinking about a similar forum and blog for non-profit/voluntary causes more widely, allowing an honest discussion of things that haven’t worked, to help all of us get closer to those that might.

Do let us know if you’re interested in contributing, are doing something similar, or know of something along these lines that already exists…

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Facilitating organisations?

Wednesday, October 13th, 2010

If we seem to know we do better when we aren’t just being told what to do, why do we keep telling each other what to do? Wouldn’t a supportive atmosphere be a more effective way of getting things done? Many of us have seen this work in learning environments, why not learn from it in working environments?

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Image fr/ www.create-learning.com/

A few years ago I was running community training courses fairly regularly. At some stage, I had a realisation that many before me had also had: that people seemed to learn the best when they were doing stuff, not me.

Thus, I began to embrace the art of facilitation: how much can you help a group of people walk down a path they’ve never been, without giving them the directions?  What combinations of well-timed, targeted questions, suggestions and anecdotes, will enable people to learn what you (broadly) want them to learn, in the way that they want to learn it (and ideally remember it)?

Old news

The same debate I was having with myself had been had many times previously and had led to some fairly significant shifts in non-classroom-based learning, as well as numerous alternative school movements.  The move was away from the concept of a single expert, putting lots of information into the heads of their less-qualified pupils, towards one where everyone played a part – not only because we all remember better when we do, but also from a firm belief that we all have something to contribute, given our unique experiences.

Like so many things, some old Chinese folks seemed to have figured this out many centuries before myself, or the countless ‘radicals’ who gradually started to see the problems with traditional training/teaching in the 1960s and ‘70s:

“Tell me and I’ll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I’ll understand.”

Several hundred years later, some of us in the West realised they were probably right. Sadly, many of our learning institutions are still clinging to a perceived supremacy of the old ways…

Facilitating organisations?

Yesterday I was reading about some ‘radical’ management ideas… many of which seemed to echo this thinking from the world of education, namely, that people do things better when they are given the chance to do them themselves and that people from all ‘levels’ of an organisation have contributions to make at all levels of that organisation… (if ‘levels’ are even an appropriate form of organisation in their own right…)

Theorists, consultants, and yes, even managers themselves, from Henry Mintzberg, to Frances Westley, to Ricardo Semler, have for decades been saying things like:

“We have this obsession with ‘leadership’. It’s maybe intended to empower people, but its effect is to disempower them. By focusing on the individual, even in the context of others, leadership can undermine a service of community… When [former IBM CEO Gerstner] heard of the initiative [to get the company into E-business, from a programmer], he encouraged it. That’s all. Instead of setting the direction, he supported the direction setting of others… What should be gone is this magic bullet of the individual as the solution to the world’s problems. We are the solution to the world’s problems, you and me, all of us, working in concert.” [Leadership and Communityship, Henry Mintzberg, Financial Times, October 23 2006]

“When social innovations take flight… the innovators are influencing their context while their context is influencing them in an endless to and fro. Decisions are made, actions are taken but it is not always clear how they came about. There is a wonderful sense of collective ownership: all who are involved feel this is their project, their cause, their time to change the world. [Getting to maybe: How the world is changed, Frances Westley et al, Vintage Canada, 2006]

“Most of our programmes are based on the notion of giving employees control over their own lives. In a word, we hire adults, and then we treat them like adults… Outside the factory, workers are men and women who elect governments, serve in the army, lead community projects, raise and educate families… but the moment they walk into the factory, the company transforms them into adolescents. They have to wear badges and name tags, arrive at a certain time, stand in line to punch the clock…” [Managing without Managers, Ricardo Semler, Harvard Business Review, September-October 1989]

‘Is facilitation the new management?’

Trendy buzzword headlines aside, I can’t help but notice an emerging pattern here towards a more facilitatory approach…

What if, instead of managing organisations, we facilitated them?

While, as others suggested when I put this idea on Twitter yesterday, I’m not keen to create new jargon, I do think ‘facilitation’ provides an understanding of getting things done in group dynamics that is fundamentally different from most of that which we have dubbed ‘management’ in recent centuries.

But rather than provide more quotes from my endless reading into the geeky world that is management philosophy, in the spirit of this post, I’d be keen to hear yours;

Is the facilitation/management distinction a useful or counterproductive one?

  • Have you been involved in something you might describe as facilitation in a workplace?
  • Did you feel there was practical value in this approach?
  • Did it create unexpected problems for anyone involved in the process?
  • How would you aim to convince someone who practiced ‘traditional management’, that there was a better alternative in facilitation (whether calling it that or not)?
  • Anything else you might have thought of while reading this?

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