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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Rethinking capacity building

Sunday, August 1st, 2010

capacitybuilders logoAs voluntary sector jargon goes, one of the most thoroughly-integrated tidbits of recent years must be the phrase that spawned its own New Labour quango: capacity building.

Through all of the criticisms Capacitybuilders (the quango) has faced, there has been some very good work they have supported (along with, I would argue, a significant share of waste).   Before setting-up Concrete Solutions, I worked for CB funding at two different organisations, whose interpretations of the phrase varied considerably from one-another.   As there are some indications that CB may be on the ConDem chopping block since the election, I felt it might be worth starting a bit of debate around the term, its value and some alternative ways of approaching it.

The problem with ‘capacity building’
My problem with the phrase is two-fold; firstly, I think a system that assumes deficits (the NEED to have capacity built) in those it exists to serve, will often miss out on the many assets those people or organisations may already have on offer, and could share more-widely, if given the chance.

Secondly (and maybe more fundamentally), is that the direction the capacity building agenda has tended to flow, follows some fairly traditional assumptions regarding money, power and what it means to be good at what you do.

…Let me put that in slightly less-abstract terms: organisations who DO the capacity building have, almost without exception, more money, stronger links to government and more uniform structures and processes than those whose capacity is built.   The implicit assumption here is that those who have succeeded by these traditional measures provide the model that the (broadly speaking) poorer, less-connected with power and more chaotic community groups should follow, if they to want to ‘succeed’.

Success?
So let’s unpick success a bit.   If you are a small youth organisation in Hackney working to support young people to leave gangs, is success getting to meet the Prime Minister, securing a multi-million pound government contract, creating spinoff projects across the country?   Maybe, maybe not… it may be that with just a little bit of money, some support from the right local leaders and your team’s commitment, you are able to make a huge difference in the lives of young people that live around you.  Focussing more widely than that may pull you from applying your skills and experience where they are most relevant and most needed.   The capacity building model often assumes that:

1. Growth is inherently good; and that growth means conforming to established institutional protocols;

2. Reciprocally, those established institutional protocols are good, because they facilitate organisational growth.

‘Bigger is Better’?
Though the ever-crude ‘bigger is better’ approach is rarely promoted in relation to community groups, its ethos is still ever-present in the assumption that bigger organisations should be ‘teaching’ smaller ones how to operate more like them.  I don’t want this to come-off as a blanket indictment of larger organisations, but given the dominance of the more institutional approach, feel a counterbalance may be useful.

So what makes big organisations ‘better’, if they are to be the templates smaller organisations should have their capacity built in the image of?   Well, they are (often) good at fundraising, HR processes, finance, marketing, evaluation (maybe not evaluation)… but something often gets lost as organisations have their capacities in each of these areas developed by the experts.  I’ve often heard this loss referred to as that of the organisation’s ‘soul’, but maybe less-melodramatically, could be seen as a loss of the organisation’s ability to see complex social problems through a complex lens, when their internal perspective has been confined by the often-inflexible systems they have been encouraged to build into the fabric of their organisation.  (Read this for a differentiation between ‘complicated’ and ‘complex’ systems).

The complicated systems of multi-year planning cycles, pre-determined organisational outcomes and number-based evaluation, don’t themselves have the capacity to shift fast enough to accommodate the ever-changing complex situations so many community groups face on a day-to-day basis. What makes the best community groups effective is often their ability to understand the many complex forces at play in their area and constantly make ad-hoc adjustments based-on ever-changing scenarios.  This flexibility is often made possible through less emphasis on planning and more on doing (and then doing differently, as often as is needed).

So what does this have to do with capacity building?
Effective capacity building can’t be a one-way process (as tends to be the case with the current model) – there must be an openness from larger organisations – traditionally those who ‘build capacity’ – to learn from the methods of those they are used to telling how things should be done.  The rhetoric of this is often hollowly embraced, but must be taken-on (when appropriate) without the knee-jerk response of ‘that only works because they are small – it would never apply to us’.

Formality and structure can be very useful at times, but can also be hugely limiting when applied as a default way of organising people around social issues.  If Capacitybuilders (the quango) want to survive the current and upcoming cuts, they might do well to look at some of the ways they could shift their approach to create honest learning spaces that would benefit both bigger and smaller groups, without assuming an inherent authority of one over the other.   Such an approach might even fit nicely into the still-cloudy ‘Big Society’ agenda and save a funding body well-placed to facilitate some much-needed co-learning across the voluntary and community sectors…

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More Like People is an association of freelance consultants, facilitators and trainers, working primarily in the voluntary, community and campaigning sectors in the the UK and elsewhere.