what is collaboration?

What is Hierarchy, Anyway?


KC Boyce

"Increasingly, business, NGO, and government leaders are identifying collaboration as an imperative to successfully compete and solve problems in an ever more complex world. The problem is, no one knows how to reliably structure collaboration to achieve their desired outcomes. COS solves that problem handily. It works, it's replicable, and it's scalable. Most importantly, it is the future of how the world will work."
- KC Boyce, Principal, Boyce & Company

Hierarchy is the “default”

Nearly every organization today operates according to hierarchy. Hierarchy is the prevailing paradigm, the default approach to all work, and most people can’t imagine life without it. 

The implicit (i.e., invisible) and predominant values of hierarchy are power and authority. They are the engine driving this simple system and the currency traded within it. Accumulating enough of each, therefore, is essential to accomplishing anything. This creates a culture where power-grabs and politics overshadow and undermine the attainment of organizational goals.

The paradox of hierarchy: Useful as a structure, problematic as a system

Although hierarchy has been getting an increasingly bad rap in the press, we’d like to offer another perspective, because to frame hierarchy as good or bad is to miss the point entirely. 

We can see hierarchies everywhere we look - in nature, in families, and in organizations. Hierarchy shows us the relationship between things. In organizations today, it shows who has more power and authority in any given dyad and in the organization over all. Beginning roughly 5500 years ago, we began using hierarchy to organize labor pools (for infantry and large building projects), manage resources and settle disputes. Yet since that time, our world has gotten increasingly more complicated, requiring that we process exponentially more information, simultaneously, than our predecessors ever had to.

Digging ourselves deeper and deeper

The unconscious reaction to this implicit problem has been to “patch” the reporting structure with a great many tools, techniques, processes, dotted reporting lines, matrices, cross-functional teams and, of course, people, all in an effort to get organizations to perform as we need them to. Our desperate need for collaboration is increasingly a driver of additional patches. So is our desire for  more democratic and humane organizations. 

Since most of our patches run counter to the fundamental hierarchical values of power and authority, they never come together in an integrated way to form a true system. Instead, they add layers of complexity that are grinding organizations and workers to a halt. When implicitly employed as a (pseudo) system, the hierarchical structure naturally becomes an obfuscating and impenetrable approach to work. Several years ago, the #2 person at a Fortune 5 company explained that his job amounted to “running around patching up relationships among executive team members so their silos won’t destroy the company.”

It’s time to stop this patching. Managing a large organization, governing a country, building and running a nuclear power plant, or addressing poverty, world hunger, and climate change are simply beyond the capacity of traditional hierarchy. Today’s world requires something far more dynamic – a modern, integrated system capable of addressing the complex nature of our work.

Ready for a way of working that works?