Alternatives to bureaucratic hierarchy

April 23rd, 2012
I don’t doubt that its possible to have an organization with out traditional managers. I’ve read about Semco and Morningstar Farms. I’ve talked to people who work at Gore. My husband works for a less well know firm that doesn’t have traditional managers.

But those companies didn’t get there by happenstance. They got there by design. People chose, designed, evolved practices and structures to support a specific culture. They didn’t take off-the-shelf models of functional or product based organizational structures.  They didn’t slide into typical  for people management practices, organizational structures, job levels or reporting relationships.

Most companies settle for practices shaped by management thinking of the first half of the last century–without a second thought. The language of this thinking is mechanistic and dehumanizing. It’s the language of efficiency, compliance, hierarchy, rules.

If you want a different sort of company, start with using a different language.

For example, rather than talk about “managing performance,” talk about giving people the information they need to continually improve or sitting down on a periodic basis to examine how we can work better together.  Does that feel different to you?  It does to me. Those words offer a different set of possibilities.

Because we are talking about people and complex human systems, not moving parts in some vast machine.

3 Comments

  1. Esther,

    The things you talk about like efficiency, compliance, hierarchy, rules, etc. were all about giving people the freedom to perform well. Those concepts then became abused by unskilled managers and staff! Those people were about moving up the ladder and not about what’s best for the company. It’s a struggle that has been going on forever.

    Those concepts and practices were suppose to allow people to work better together by eliminating ambiguity and confusion. As are all methodologies and formal practices. There is no benefit for an organization to force their people to work less effieciently and less effectively.

    I don’t fully understand “agile”, so any explaining you can provide will help.

    In the knowledge worker age that we’re in. Eliminating ambiguity and confusion is much more important than it was during the industrial age. Formal methodologies containing formal methods is the way to help people who are engaged in creative work. Creative work is very ad hoc and very well… creative. So, you must find a way to harness the output from those activities.

    What is different about the knowledge worker age and the industrial age is that today we have machines to do repetitve work. So, while workers of the past were given specific steps to follow to get their work done (be the machine). Today’s worker is given a framework to operate within and the worker then decides how best to be productive.

    If I’m not mistaken the term “bureaucratic hierarchy” isn’t a type of hierarchy. It’s a description of how the hierarchy is functioning. So, if you replace the “position holders” in a bureaucratic hierarchy with better people the hierarchy may begin to function better. In other words the hierarchy is nothing more than a concept. How the hierachy performs is the result of the skills of people who hold positions in it.

  2. Jason says:

    “Managing performance” is so wonderfully full of wiggle-wordiness that I’m not surprised at its appeal. It doesn’t actually mean anything, so you can make it mean whatever you want. It’s a euphemism that just sounds like it stands in for something awful, and all too often actually does.

    It’s also short. Some people seem to think this is an advantage, despite the fact that such short phrases tend to provoke long-winded discussions that go nowhere fast. A bad graph can detonate and destroy an entire meeting, a bad catchphrase will leave an even bigger crater behind.

    Unfortunately your alternative is a little too long, although I’m totally with you on the sentiment. I will counter with: “Helping people improve.” It says a lot more about your value system/judgements than any phrase that started with “managing” probably ever has.

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