Belgian royal conservatory's dome, interior with sun. (c) E. Forrest Christian

On Hierarchies and Requisite Organization

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Elliott Jaques’s big contribution seems to be in his respect for work hierarchies. Most folks today disparage hierarchy. They say that they prefer to work in a flat or matrixed organization. Matrix organizations, for those who haven’t experienced them, are a bit like the movie: nobody seems to be who they claim to be and almost anyone can morph into your boss.

Most matrix organizations are also trying to be flat; that is, they are trying to reduce the number of management layers from something excessive like twenty to three. Jaques said that these people are simply wrong: work in matrixed organizations is difficult and inhuman (and inhumane) over the long term. Your quality of life at work is determined by the project manager you have at the moment, but this person is not the one who will give you your performance evaluation.

(NB: Gallup talks about this in its book on management, First Break All the Rules: What Managers Really Do.)

A consulting firm I worked with was a matrixed, flat organization: which meant I had six people telling me what to do, in a company of twenty-two. That’s not a typo: I had six (6). Instead of reducing the layers of management, it increased the number of bosses I had. I emphasize bosses and not stakeholders, since these people held the power both to task me and to punish me.

We don’t live in hierarchies much in North America. Canada is a bit less so than the U.S., and Europe even less than the northern neighbour. Churches are flattened with attacks on the authority of hierarchies. Baby boomers effectively destroyed hierarchy in education, only to replace it with the students’ social hierarchies. Families have little hierarchy: grandparents are removed or parents nonexistent, or simply letting their children be raised by the streets. We all too often work for ourselves in this new economy, freelancers, guns-for-hire, ronin attached to no patron. And like ronin, we starve out in the cold too often.

We have shunned hierarchy because we have felt it be too restrictive, or used for abusive purposes. My nation’s founding fathers (all those who helped create America, not just the signers of the Constitution) shunned aristocracy and hierarchy by birth but they did not shun hierarchy whole cloth. The idea of “all men are created equal” may have been better expressed in its original statement in the Massachusetts constitution, that “all men are created equally free”. Equal under the law but not interchangeable. Yet, surely our desire to escape the hierarchy of companies comes in part from this heritage of democratic values as much as from the baby boom dynamics.

What have we lost in our rejection of hierarchy? Elliott Jaques’s studies of work done in real organizations would argue that we have not only lost but lost dearly by tossing out the work hierarchy. While other hierarchies may indeed be detrimental to development, work hierarchies can provide an accelerator for personal growth when they are filled with the right people in the right slots. We grow and expand.

But when you work in a hierarchy where you are in the wrong position you will suffer a terrible agony, including the common situation of having a boss who does not have the complexity of thought to set context for his or her subordinates. Most of us have experience only this side of hierarchy, whether because our boss was the wrong person for his or her position, we had been promoted to where we could not do the work and became schizo or a CEO lacked the ability to see far enough into the future.

We ache and cry out for a flat organization because as bad as it is, it is preferable to the cesspool we are currently in.

I know what it is like to work for a boss who is in the right position and where I am, too. He’s more competent than I am (has a longer view) and is not outclassed by the requirements of his job. Neither was I. But it has been awhile. My job with K was like that: I felt like I could do anything working for him, because I knew that he would never ask more of me than I could do. Working for JV was like that, too.

“Experts” even rail against Jaques’s requisite hierarchy because it creates an organization that is too stable, too hard to change.

How quaint. Every system stabilizes and resists change.

Imagine a system that builds people up rather than draining them, that energizes you, that raises you farther up. What would my world be like?

Image Credit: Belgian royal conservatory’s dome, interior with sun. © E. Forrest Christian

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