Tag Archives: hierarchy

Serious Conversations, 7

In these notes on serious conversations, I keep circling back, it seems, to two ideas: first, that what makes a conversation serious is not its subject matter or tone, but the stance of its participants toward each other; and, second, that the conversational stance requires that we confer a certain authority on our interlocutors, or (to put it another way) recognize that they have standing to address us.

While other kinds of authority — title, rank, role — are of secondary importance, and can sometimes even get in the way, this moral authority or standing is fundamental. It does not have to be earned, proven or ratified by reference to some person, written instrument or record of accomplishment outside the conversation or by institutional set up. It is constituted and realized in the relationship you and I have — or, if that is just too clunky, let’s say it is the relationship you and I have; and it is sufficient authority for a serious conversation because it makes us mutually accountable to each other.

Where this equal human stature (or dignity) is respected (and appreciated), it can be a source of power: not just the power of one over another, but the power to make claims or demands of each other, or to ask and answer, and this power of asking is essential if we are going to deliberate in earnest about our situation or collaborate on something new.

The conversational stance allows for genuine co-creation, because it’s not founded on subordination or one person ordering the other about. And the capacity for co-creation, the creative power that we share, only increases as we include more people in the circle of the conversation. (Of course there are limits: the research on group size and social complexity Dunbar summarizes suggests the circle probably should not widen beyond 150 people.)

I’ve tried to capture this thought in a simple rule: the power of asking will always be greater than the power of command.

That’s the basic position.

Another way to put the same thought might be in terms of the mechanics of ordering versus asking: whereas in the former we have one person directing the will of another, as we might address a short-order cook, in the latter we direct each other’s wills, so that we are, to stick with the metaphor, chefs in our own kitchen.

Of course the usual caveat applies about too many cooks spoiling the broth, I guess, but let’s also remember that people have different talents, training and competencies, and we can worry about how to order and organize ourselves once it comes to the actual cooking. Right now we’re just having a conversation.

Let’s also acknowledge, while we’re at it, that short-order cooks are models of industrial-era efficiency (but no longer efficient enough for the post-industrial fast food kitchen); gains in co-creativity can and probably will translate to losses in short-term efficiency.

Some concessions on one side or the other will probably have to be made, but too often the proponents of efficiency win without any argument, and people start giving orders or setting out plans for what’s to be done before the conversation even has a chance to get started. That’s when all the real power goes out of the room.

“For me, music has no leader”

In 1997, Ornette Coleman was in Paris to play at La Villette, and sat down for an interview with French philosopher Jacques Derrida.  The interview was the subject of a thoughtful piece by Richard Brody in the New Yorker a few years ago, but I came across it only this morning. This part of the exchange especially resonates with me, as it has to do with conversations without a leader (an idea I’ve been exploring in some of my posts on the power of asking).

On the one hand, Coleman has throughout his career had to dispel the notion that in playing free jazz, “I just picked up my saxophone and played whatever was going through my head, without following any rule, but that wasn’t true.”  He struggled, on the other hand, with the hierarchical, bureaucratic rigidity of the New York Philharmonic, where he had to submit a composition “to the person in charge of scores…to be sure the Philharmonic wouldn’t be disturbed.”  He works according to another model — a conversation in which no one is “in charge,” but in which the participants can rely on  a “framework” (usually, but not always, provided by the piano).

Here is Timothy S. Murphy’s translation:

OC: For the Philharmonic I had to write out parts for each instrument, photocopy them, then go see the person in charge of scores. But with jazz groups, I compose and I give the parts to the musicians in rehearsal. What’s really shocking in improvised music is that despite its name, most musicians use a framework [trame] as a basis for improvising. I’ve just a recorded a CD with a European musician, Joachim Kuhn, and the music I wrote to play with him, that we recorded in August 1996, has two characteristics: it’s totally improvised, but at the same time it follows the laws and rules of European structure. And yet, when you hear it, it has a completely improvised feel [air].

JD: First the musician reads the framework, then brings his own touch to it.

OC: Yes, the idea is that two or three people can have a conversation with sounds, without trying to dominate it or lead it. What I mean is that you have to be…intelligent, I suppose that’s the word. In improvised music, I think the musicians are trying to reassemble an emotional or intellectual puzzle, in any case a puzzle in which the instruments give the tone. It’s primarily the piano that has served at all times as the framework in music, but it’s no longer indispensable and, in fact, the commercial aspect of music is very uncertain. Commercial music is not necessarily more accessible, but it is limited.

JD: When you begin to rehearse, is everything ready, written, or do you leave space for the unforeseen?

OC: Let’s suppose that we’re in the process of playing and you hear something that you think could be improved: you could tell me, “You should try this.” For me, music has no leader.

JD: What do you think of the relationship between the precise event that constitutes the concert and pre-written music or improvised music? Do you think that pre-written music prevents the event from taking place?

OC: No, I don’t know if it’s true for language, but in jazz you can take a very old piece and do another version of it. What’s exciting is the memory that you bring to the present. What you’re talking about, the form that metamorphoses into other forms, I think it’s something healthy, but very rare.

JD: Perhaps you will agree with me on the fact that the very concept of improvisation verges upon reading, since what we understand by improvisation is the creation of something new, yet something which doesn’t exclude the pre-written framework that makes it possible.

OC: That’s true.

 

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.

Creativity or Command?

John Hagel and John Seely-Brown have a new piece on CNN Money called “Welcome to the Hardware Revolution” that nicely highlights an issue I touched on yesterday: the limits that institutionalized power — or the ways we institutionalize power — can place on learning and innovation.

I suggested, in passing, that business organizations rely on hierarchical models of command-obedience in order to achieve efficiency; but that doesn’t always work to their advantage (and the performance advantage to be gained from scalable efficiency, Hagel and Seely-Brown have argued elsewhere, isn’t anywhere near what it used to be). What these companies may gain in efficiency they lose in creativity, learning and innovation.

Here is what Hagel and Seely-Brown have to say in their “Hardware Revolution” piece:

many of the executives we speak with list talent development and innovation as top priorities, but for all they push, progress remains a struggle. Part of the problem is that most businesses’ institutional structures, hierarchies, and cultures actually limit the connecting, exploration, tinkering, and improvisation that make learning and innovation possible.

Increasingly, the sharing of ideas and new developments are taking place outside big companies or officially sanctioned workflows and processes, in what Hagel and Seely-Brown call “creation spaces.” These are spaces — communities, networks and cultures — conducive to what Illich would call conviviality: places real or virtual, open and decentralized, where people congregate to share tools and experiment together, learn from one another, try new things, and be part of a community of people with shared interests.

The article goes on to recommend some basic questions business executives can ask themselves in order to improve their companies and move them toward creativity, or at least get their bearings. But there’s another question looming behind those: the question how (in a large and established organization) you go about institutionalizing the kind of practices you find in creation spaces. Eventually, something’s got to give; and if it comes down to a decision between preserving organizational hierarchies and legacy models of how stuff gets done or opening the doors to creativity — how many will choose the latter?

Maybe the choice is not as stark as my title makes it out to be. Let’s just say there are better ways to spur creativity than to command it.

Who’s Afraid of 953(b)?

Insanity! That’s how Thomas Sternberg, co-founder of Staples, describes Section 953(b) of the Dodd-Frank Act. “Incredibly wasteful,” adds John A. Allison IV, a director of BB&T Corp., the ninth-largest U.S. bank. For the past year or so, CEOs and business lobbying groups like the Business Roundtable and the National Investor Relations Institute have been fighting “tooth and nail” against 953(b). With the SEC preparing to issue its proposed rules sometime this spring, expect a lot more noise.

Why all the fuss over 953(b)? This section of Dodd Frank deals with disclosure of executive compensation – always a touchy subject. Specifically it would mandate public companies to disclose, in their SEC filings:

(A) the median of the annual total compensation of all employees of the issuer, except the chief executive officer (or any equivalent position) of the issuer;
(B) the annual total compensation of the chief executive officer (or any equivalent position) of the issuer; and
(C) the ratio of the amount described in subparagraph (A) to the amount described in subparagraph (B).

Issuers — public companies — advance a number of arguments against having to make this dread calculation. The one repeated most often is that it is cumbersome – a burden, just too difficult, a waste of everybody’s time and money. (They respond in the same way when they are asked to report on human rights, by the way.) But compensation data can’t be all that hard to gather, can it? What would it really take to calculate the median of the annual total compensation of all employees? Are we to take seriously the claim that companies do not have these numbers already available? And if they do not, isn’t that a sign of seriously poor fiscal management, or negligence? Time to demand better housekeeping.

Second, we are told, 953(b) disclosures wouldn’t be of value to investors; the measure is just politically motivated. “Everyone recognizes that this is a political disclosure, not an economic one,” writes Michael S. Melbinger, partner at Winston and Strawn; 953(b) is “intended to give unions and certain media folks a tool to bash corporate America”.

The unions and the media? Melbinger’s argument is specious at best. You can only bash corporate America, and these disclosures will only count against companies, if there is something disclosed that is embarrassing, or worse. And of course there is. The research of Duke University’s Dan Ariely suggests that these disclosures would reveal gross inequities: in the past 20 years, CEO pay has increased from 130 to about 350 times that of the average worker. Does that give people a bashing tool? Or does it reveal that ordinary people are regularly getting bashed by a bunch of corporate tools?

Third, some companies argue that the disclosures should be restricted to employee compensation in the United States. The fear is that employee compensation in foreign countries will drag down the median. Strange that companies that are usually so bold about their global reach or their smart outsourcing strategies are suddenly so shy. But shareholders (and customers) are increasingly concerned about the treatment of foreign workers – how much they are paid, and what their working conditions are – and are demanding transparency and accountability across the supply and service chain. Witness Apple.

These arguments are merely blinds. The question is whether the SEC, after so much heavy lobbying, will be able to see them for what they are. Maybe shareholder demands for greater transparency can eventually make up for any shortcomings of the SEC’s final ruling, but that will, of course, be a longer slog.

It would be difficult to argue that a CEO earning 350, 250, or 100 times the average worker is really a model of good corporate governance. A study [pdf] by Michael J. Cooper, Huseyin Gulen and P. Raghavendra Rau shows that highly paid CEOs are not necessarily more effective CEOs, and that CEO pay does not correlate with company performance. And a recent post by Christopher Swann and Agnes T. Crane gives the lie to the usual excuse for bloated compensation packages: the “global war for talent” has not brought global talent to the C-Suite; American companies still hire American-born CEOS, even though American CEOs have lagged behind their European-born peers in delivering performance.

In any case, we need a better understanding of how pay ratios and the hierarchies they perpetuate affect performance, especially in an environment where command and control hierarchies can seriously limit agility and hamper innovation. 953(b) provides a good opportunity to have that conversation.

Finally, my guess – and right now I don’t have any research to back this up, so I will have to rely on behavior I’ve observed – is that overpaid CEOs tend not to attract, retain or inspire innovative thinkers in their immediate circle. There are, of course, notable exceptions; and this is not to say that overpaid CEOs cannot preside over innovative companies. But like mafia bosses and politicians, most SuperCEOs tend to prefer polite indulgence or deference, even if what they are saying is wrong, ridiculous, or just plain boring. Talented people, on the other hand, need to follow their own course and will dissent, or just leave and start their own thing, rather than keep silent, tolerate gross inequities, or toady up to the big bad boss.