Tag Archives: organizational change

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.

Ask Is A Verb

If you have spent any time in conference rooms or on conference calls, you have no doubt arrived at the moment when someone, usually the person who commands the most authority in the room, articulates “the ask” of the meeting. Or someone will ask, “what is the ask?” and this poor excuse for a question will snap everyone to attention, demonstrating that they regarded most of what went before as inconsequential blather. They were merely awaiting their orders.

Against this slide into jargon – and it’s fair to talk about it as a slide, an intellectually lazy lapse into the jargon of bureaucratic command– it is important to assert: ask is a verb. Why? Because verbs describe and denote action, and asking is a special action – an action that initiates and coordinates new action (on a very basic level, the discussion of the request, the coordination of the actors who will attempt to satisfy the request.) Asking is a way to begin, and beginnings are the prerogative not just of nominal leaders, but of all human beings.

When a designated leader, or anyone, for that matter, talks about “the ask,” they are turning a verb into a noun, an action into a thing – into a command, more precisely, and depriving asking of its native connection to action. They are not interested in beginnings, but in ends, the outcome they already have in mind. At the level of the sentence, “the ask” or “my ask” obscures the basic relationship that the verb “to ask” usually creates between a petitioner (the person doing the asking) and a respondent (the one of whom a thing is asked), and converts that very fragile and mutable relationship, that conversation about the world and what we should do together, into a superior’s control over a subordinate.

When you ask someone to do something you will elicit a response. The response can be a simple yes or no; and the number one rule of asking  — of being a petitioner — is “always take no for an answer.” In other words, be prepared to listen, engage and adapt. Asking someone to do something – as opposed to ordering them to do it – is to initiate an event whose outcome is unpredictable. The request is fraught with possibility, uncertainty, promise. That is because when you ask, you implicitly acknowledge the independence and autonomy of the other – recognizing them as an agent capable of their own beginnings. When you command, you forgo that recognition, and the respect that goes along with it, to remind the other of his subordination, and treat him as an instrument of your will, a means to your own ends.

This little piece of jargon creates a big moral muddle, but sometimes a muddle is exactly what bureaucrats want to create because they are unwilling to assume the responsibility of command, they are averse to risk (beginnings are always risky), or they are just cowardly.  “The ask” preserves hierarchy without acknowledging power relations. It involves phony respect for the other: I am not petitioner asking you, the respondent, to do something; there is an object called “the ask” that we must address. It comes from nowhere, really; its origin is unclear, but our duty is clear.  That request from nowhere or at least nobody also keeps power relations, the status quo, intact. The course is set. Things have already begun; the task now is to complete them. So “the ask” works as a hedge against change, against doing something really new; it short-circuits the conversation, shuts down dialogue, and enlists others not as collaborators but as a pair of hands to get a job done.

I suppose that’s not so surprising in a context where the point is execution of an already-decided objective or plan, not debate; but without debate or deliberation a plan or objective will lack meaning for those asked to carry it out. They won’t have had a chance to figure out for themselves the best way to carry it out, whether they are the right people to carry it out, or whether it ought to be carried out at all.

What’s Really Wrong with Non-Profits?

You may have been fortunate enough to have missed Rush Limbaugh’s angry tirade last week against the non-profit sector and the “lazy idiots” and “rapists” who fill its ranks.

It’s disturbing to think there are people out there – millions of people — who tune into this buffoon on purpose, and share his views and are infected by his hysteria.

What’s even stranger is that — though I am loath to admit it — Rush got me thinking.

Having worked in the non-profit sector (as an educator) and for the non-profit sector (as a consultant) for most of my adult life, I have my own ideas about what’s really wrong with non-profits.

Here is my top-ten list. I won’t pretend that this list of troubles is exhaustive, and I admit up front that these are sweeping statements. My aim is simply to gather my thoughts and, if I’m lucky, start a conversation.

1. Many non-profits are unable to say what they are really about, or confuse their programs with their core mission.

2. Non-profits that begin from small, inspired efforts have a hard time figuring out how big they should grow, how small they should stay, or how to right-size themselves.

3. Many non-profits are founded by a charismatic leader, and remain captive to his or her charisma; but to flourish, the non-profit may require another organizational model.

4. Non-profits don’t do a great job of capturing knowledge, turning knowledge into assets, and sharing knowledge across the organization or with other organizations engaged in the same work; but they should.

5. People come into the non-profit organization inspired and ready to change the world, and become (at best) competent managers.

6. Many non-profits believe managers with corporate skill sets or consultants versed in management theory can create greater organizational efficiencies; but they too often simply don’t get the culture of the non-profit organization.

7. Non-profits lack the entrepreneurial audacity of social entrepreneurs, and tend to be risk averse.

8. For the sake of being inclusive and making sure everybody has a say, non-profits will often forgo the best ideas and the smartest choices.

9. Many non-profit organizations confuse capacity with resources, and resources with funding.

10. Non-profits tend to be captive to their history, because so many non-profits were formed as a solution to a particular problem, or were built in a single great effort, and it’s hard to move beyond that founding moment.

I wonder if my list resonates with the experiences of others. I wonder, too, what’s missing from it, and which non-profit organizations, in your view, really and consistently get it right.