Denning and the Death of Hierarchies

Steve Denning, the “radical management” and leadership guru, published a post at Forbes.com yesterday about the shift taking place within many organizations, away from hierarchical models of command and toward more fluid, flexible and agile setups. Drawing on Fairtlough’s The Three Ways of Getting Things Done — which argues that the only “effective” organizational models are hierarchy, heterarchy and responsible autonomy — Denning argues that hierarchies “must sign their own death warrants to survive” in what he likes to call the Creative Economy.

In this post, Denning’s interested in why business leaders cling to hierarchy even in the face of evidence that it’s no longer the most effective way of getting stuff done (if it ever was), and in the paradox that in all the examples he can find, “it’s the hierarchical management itself that has led the shift away from hierarchy. The shift didn’t occur as a kind of bottom-up movement. It was the top that saw that there was a better way to make decisions and went for it.” Flatter organizations tend to cleave to the status quo and work within established frameworks, he observes.

Of course plenty of other people within an organization might see that there is a better way. Those atop the organizational hierarchy are the ones permitted or entitled to say it aloud or do something about it. Hierarchy isn’t just a way to get things done; it’s also a way of distributing power, and the power relations hierarchy maintains are a daily fact of life for subordinates. They usually don’t have a place at the table when the organizational models are being drawn up or redrawn. In order to effect change within a hierarchy, those at the bottom – and the middle – would need to be enlisted as stakeholders, entrusted with real power and respected as equals (which would itself require some undoing of the organizational hierarchy).

I am a little puzzled why Denning here doesn’t present a more considered and nuanced view of the way power actually works within organizations – and the way in which concentrated power can actually hamper performance and kill ideas or even the motivation to present ideas about how to do things better.

That aside, and no matter how or why or by whom “the shift away from hierarchy” is brought about, Denning’s article is a good place to start talking about what this shift will really entail and require of people at every level of a hierarchical organization. It seems fair to say that as organizations get flatter and try to operate with more creativity and agility, the way things are coordinated – the way we use language to order the world, get things done and coordinate action — will itself have to undergo a radical change. The way I’d put it is that coordination will have to shift from the power of command to the power of asking.

Indeed, how we use language – how we make claims and demands on others, how we talk and listen to others about what to do — can itself help effect a shift from hierarchical command structures to the more fluid structure associated with the give and take of serious conversation (the rough equivalent, to my mind, of what philosopher T.M. Scanlon calls “co-deliberation”). I’ll have more to say about what constitutes a serious conversation in a future post.

2 thoughts on “Denning and the Death of Hierarchies

  1. Pingback: Serious Conversations, 1 | lvgaldieri

  2. Pingback: Serious Conversations, 2 | lvgaldieri

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