Tag Archives: tribal system

It’s Not About Flow and Luck

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

In your workshop, it was clear, the research you presented supports hierarchy in an organization. I am still not sure I buy that. There is so much talk these days about “tribes” as a better, more flexible structure.

Notwithstanding how great Mel Gibson looked in his Mayan costume in Apocalypto, all the talk of modern tribal systems is misguided.

One reason is the misunderstanding of the purpose for hierarchy. We think, because we watch too many military movies, we think hierarchy exists to create a reporting protocol in the organization. Here’s the bad news, you are NOT a manager so people can report to you.

The fact is, we report to people all over the organization. I contribute to a project for Paul. I am responsible to compile a forecast for a report for Frank. I have to procure some super-special material on a project for Bill. I sit in on a steering committee for Jim. I report to people all over the organization. There is no lack of flexibility. It might even have the appearance of a tribe.

But even in a tribal structure, every once in a while, like every day, I will run up against a problem or a decision where I need some help. I may have a conflict priority between Bill’s project and Frank’s project. Who do I go to for help? If I go to Bill or Frank, I may get the wrong answer. So who is accountable for that decision. In a tribal system, no one is accountable. There is ambiguity. And ambiguity kills accountability.

A tribal system is great, unless we are trying to get some work done.

The purpose of the managerial relationship, the mandate for every manager, is to bring value to the problem solving and decision making of the team member. And that’s the purpose for hierarchy, to fix accountability at the appropriate decision level. The right decision on the conflict between Bill’s project and Frank’s project may require perspective on BOTH projects, as well as capital budgets, multiple customer initiatives and the availability of technical support. If I don’t have that perspective (to make the right decision), then who?

In a tribe, there is no one accountable for that perspective? It’s all about flow and luck.

In a hierarchy, it is my manager who is accountable. I may report to people all over the organization, but there is only one person accountable for my output, and that is my manager.