Do Both: Organizations need top-down and sideways

My “PowerShop” prototype demonstrated at TED 2013

Registration is now open for my annual SXSW report going live on March 16.

About a decade ago, I served on a World Economic Forum (WEF) council on new models of leadership. Back then I thought a lot about how our world was moving from the hierarchy to the heterarchy.

My thinking at the time for the WEF was influenced by how I was an active experimentalist in using the power of electronic communications to close the distance between leaders and their constituents.

For example, in 2008 I may have been the first chief executive of a university to host an internal blog where I could “talk” with anyone in the organization out in the open. To increase transparency even further, I created an “anonymous Tuesday” where participants could say whatever they wanted to me with full anonymity. Needless to say, Tuesday became a popular day for my community to watch to see what would happen. Eventually I needed to shut the blog down because I realized the world wasn’t ready for such a paradigm shift yet — things like Twitter hadn’t yet taken hold.

The advantage of being able to easily connect across an organization means that the “head” of an organization can actively feel the pain in their arms, knees, fingertips, and toes.

Engaging in those practices led me to think about how important it is for executive leaders to connect “up and down and across” the hierarchy upon which they sit. Otherwise they can quickly become overbiased by what only their topmost leaders are telling them. In times of stability, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But when a leader becomes too insulated from a conflict with tens of organizational layers that separate a boss from reality, it’s easy for the signal-to-noise ratio to be so high at the top that by the time an urgent issue bubbles up, it’s beyond repair. The advantage of being able to easily connect across an organization means that the “head” of an organization can actively feel the pain in their arms, knees, fingertips, and toes. It means that they’re able to decimate separate layers of power and work heterarchically instead of hierarchically.

The hierarchy implies the archetypal “pyramid of power,” where authority flows from the top and everyone at the lower levels needs to fall into line. The heterarchy is about adopting the convenience of connecting easily across departments and layers with electronic tools, and for people “at the bottom” to assume a position of equal authority to the leader at the top.

You need both. Do both.

At TED in 2013, I presented on this topic as a way to “redesign” leadership within digitally transformed organizations by leveraging the power of computation. This newer, tech-y approach allowed chief executives to interconnect constituents, and to become better “listeners at scale.” When I look back at that thinking, I realize I got more than a few things wrong:

  • Although the new generation of employees expect the heterarchy, the older generation’s ongoing pushback is a material impediment to throwing out the hierarchy.
  • Organizational scale is made possible by having rigid hierarchical networks. If everyone doesn’t have clear “swim lanes,” an organization can quickly become disorganized.
  • The rapid shift to realtime chat systems like Slack altered the notion of “urgent” versus “priority” communications; e-mail at least gave a fighting chance for leaders’ sanity.

Today I’m a believer in “hybrid” for anything in life, especially at work. In some cases hierarchy is really important. When a major crisis happens, there needs to be an accountable center of power. At the same time, heterarchy is really important. During that same major crisis, there also needs to be diffuse networks of peer-to-peer collaboration. You need both. Do both.

For a period of time in the early days of the Internet, I had the #1 SEO for the phrase “do both” for a blog post I wrote on how combining two good things together is never a bad thing. So organizations need to do both well: hierarchy and heterarchy. The former comes easy because it’s how we ran the world for most of history; the latter is being powered by the new generation of folks who speak machine and human in blended form. Do both, and you might do better in life as a leader. It’s worked for me.

I’ll be walking through the various components of the safety stack in my upcoming CX Report to be presented at SXSW in March and entitled, “Safety Eats The World.” And if the topic of How To Speak Machine interests you, there’s a book for that. Stay tuned! — JM

John Maeda: Technologist and product experience leader that bridges business, engineering, design via working inclusively. Happily working at Everbridge☁️ :+).

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