Hierarchy vs Flat

From the Ask Tom mailbag:

As I look at Elliott Jaques model organization, I notice that it is a hierarchy. Over the years, I have heard, or been taught, or read articles about how it is important to flatten out the hierarchy, drive decision-making down to the front lines, closer to the customer. It makes sense to me, but Jaques seems to ignore these new flat organizational models.

Your observations about Elliott Jaques’ high regard for hierarchy is correct. And these new organizational models really aren’t new. The flat organization, for all its well intentioned “new-ness” is the way things were before there was hierarchy.

Most people see organizational layers as reporting relationships. Who reports to whom? Who is a direct report? An indirect report? A dotted line report? This view lends itself to command and control and the push-back is predictable in today’s business environment. The central question is NOT, who reports to who, but which manager can be held accountable for the output of the team member?

Elliott saw things differently. Elliott was a scientist who spent his time observing both functional and dysfunctional organizations. He didn’t make up warm and fuzzy theories, he observed, in a scientific way. He gathered data, documented his findings and arrived at principles he found helpful.

Elliott observed, in functional organizations, that each layer had a Time Span orientation distinct from the next and that, if you drew a picture of those layers, from the longest Time Span goals at the top to the shortest Time Span goals at the bottom, you ended up with a picture of hierarchy. If his findings had been a circle, he would have reported it to be a circle, but his findings supported hierarchy.

As he examined each layer, he found that problems were solved differently. And the way problems were solved was directly related to the Time Span of the goals each layer was working on.

The value he found, in this hierarchy, was the capability of each successive layer to assist the next layer down with their problem solving. This capability created a value stream for problem solving and decision making throughout the organization.

Where we get screwed up with all this push-back on hierarchy is that we see hierarchy as a reporting structure. The real power of hierarchy comes from its value stream. Here is the way Elliott saw it:

Every employee is entitled to have a competent manager with the Time Span capability to bring VALUE to their problem solving and their decision making.

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