Perdition they name is ….

November 26, 2010

In an idle moment between shower and meeting I did a quick scan of incoming Tweets and found one from Steve Denning promoting a posting to his blog which in turn is promoting the latest Leader’s guide. It looks like these guides are going to be an annual event, and the latest is to something Steve chooses to call Radical Management. Now the quote which caught my attention was this: Saying that hierarchies are needed is like arguing for smoking cigarettes. Hierarchies are a harmful habit that we need to break. My initial reaction was to simply reply with some variation of OMG or You cannot be serious. However Steve is an old friend, we even used to teach a narrative masterclass together until our paths diverged. So I read the blog in full and was, to put it mildly disappointed.

OK, Steve has take an fairly well trodden path in the US management guru stakes; a new book every year, lots of cases illustrating one simple idea or theme, linked presentations and consultancy offerings etc. It’s not a model I find attractive (or possible) and I think that, regardless of the qualities of the individual, it tends to trivialization and what I will call the overtly simplistic universal. It’s something I railed against in my KM World Keynote and the form should be familiar to most readers. A idea or prescription generally expressed in language that ranges from the ideal to the platitudinous forms the book title. A series of cases or examples are retrospectively selected to illustrate the idea and the book offers the promise that adoption will lead to some ideal future state in which the problems of the present will be overcome and peace and harmony will reign over the land. OK I am using hyperbole to a degree, but its only matching rhetoric styles.

Now authors who adopt this approach range from snake oil sales people and charlatans, to those with personal integrity and the potential to carry our serious work who have chosen the broad over the narrow way (now you should understand the relevance of the picture and the title). Steve (in my humble opinion) tends to the later not the former and is thus capable of redemption, assuming that is, that a sense of humour and a capability for self-deprogation has been retained. So in that spirit lets look at the post, and also in the spirt of self-help literature and powerpoint presentations let’s do it as a series of bullet points. Quotes from Steve in coloured bold italics.

  • A pervasive idea in management theology today is that there are only two alternatives: hierarchy or anarchy.
    Well thats news to me, the most pervasive form I know is a matrix based organisation with multiple reporting points or people from who you take business direction. I haven’t read any thing which establishes that dichotomy from a research base, neither does my own experience of the many organisations I work with support the statement. So unless there is some evidence I think we can dismiss that as attention seeking hyperbole. The snipe against theology confirms that, most theologians I know avoid hype and hyperbole as well as primitive dichotomies. You might not agree with their assumptions and beliefs, but their writing does have intellectual rigor.
  • The argument then gets more serious, Hierarchy is said to be inflexible and unresponsive, it leads to demotivation and fails to innovate due to a preoccupation with preserving the hierarchy ahead of all else. Now there is some validity in all these statements, but in some contexts, they are not universal. Military structures are hierarchical but are more than capable of rapid response and flexibility. Tyrannical use of a a hierarchy can lead to demotivation, but strong leadership with clear direction down the management chain can also result in very high levels of motivation. In IBM Hierarchies often created space for innovation (the phrase was top cover) while flatter and more transparent structures prevented it. In some of Steve’s other books he tells stories of decisive leaders who make strong decisions that other people follow. Now I am sure Steve has examples which support those negative statements, I can find some too. The point is that inflexibility, demotivation and failure to innovate are not necessary consequences of hierarchy nor are those behaviours universal. This is a type of simplistic stereotyping which is dangerous in a lot of management writing; its a variation of the straw man fallacy in that it sets of a bad guy/thing that can be juxtaposed against whatever new solution is being peddled.
  • Saying that hierarchies are needed is like arguing for smoking cigarettes. Hierarchies are a harmful habit that we need to break. Now at this point hyperbole turns to farce. For a start if you don’t have a formal hierarchy in an organisation most people will feel very uncomfortable, they like to know where they sit, what is the next route to promotion. People like structure. If you don’t have a formal one then the alpha males will create one anyway, or worst still the alpha females. Nothing personal here, just IBM experience speaking. Male wolves know if you bear you neck you have surrendered and give only a token nick, female wolves bite through the jugular to ensure no future danger.. Steve really needs to get his head around the fact that it isn’t an either/or it’s a both/and. Hierarchies provide stability and structure over time and they are needed, they are not incompatible with other forms of organisation such as agile software development teams or japanese automotive manufacturing (to take Steve’s subsequent examples).
  • We then get the various examples above, broadly described as Dynamic Linking. This is apparently best expressed in Agile software development and (wait for it) in Steve’s new book. This approach is based on short cycle working and managers setting goals based on what is known about what might delight the client. One wonders if said managers are part of a hierarchy, and of course they are. The whole point is that in practice, but not in polemic, these practices exist within hierarchies and are endorsed and supported by them. The Cynefin framework is extensively used in the Agile community because it creates boundaries between applications where traditional methods and approaches are appropriate and those where AGILE will work better. This is my concept of bounded applicability; different things work in different contexts. Steve needs to adopt a little of flexibility he advocates.

I could go on, but lets get to the essence. Creating simplistic recipes based on a universal this is the way to do it statement supported or justified by the use of a straw-man fallacy and selective examples may sell books but it does little service to organisational theory or practice. Aside from Dynamic Linkage (which is brilliant in the right context) we also have crews and other organisational forms, all of which are symbiotic with hierarchies;. There is nothing inherently wrong with hierarchies, and they have value in context. The same applies to other forms of organisation.

Steve closed off with the suggestion that his approach is Worth a Try, and by implication worth a $20 investment. I’m less sure, better I think to try out the idea that a little more sophistication would allow more contextual thinking and more pragmatic and sustainable solutions. Of course those might last longer than a year …

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