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Allan Kelly
Allan Kelly inspires, educates and advises teams and executives creating digital products. He helps businesses improve their use of Agile methods and serve their customers better

In defence of hierarchy

Hierarchy, it is one of those topics which provokes a reaction.

There are many in the agile community who believe hierarchy is a bad thing. Teams – and whole organizations are better off without hierarchy. It is simply(!) a case of finding better ways of organizing which don’t involve hierarchy.

Then there are those who acknowledge that hierarchy has been with us for millennia and find it hard to imagine how anyone could organise without it.

As a general rule the supporters of agile come down against hierarchy. I’ve been known to rail against hierarchy myself but at the same time I’ve long had my doubts that it is possible to remove hierarchy altogether. Rather I aim for less hierarchy and greater independence rather than the abolition of all hierarchy. I tend to keep this view to myself because a) it is subtle and b) I suspect I’ll loose a lot of agile street cred if people know.

So when I heard about a book called Hierarchy by John Child I immediately bought a copy. This is no easy read – Child is a Professor and so the style is academic rather than pop-psychology business blockbuster. So far I’m about half way through but the book raises many interested point that I’m still thinking through.

In particular Child highlights a number of benefits of hierarchy which deserve attention and I think are too often overlooked. Right now I want to capture my thoughts so far before I get into the arguments against hierarchy. So…

The benefits of hierarchy to an organization:

  • Hierarchy has benefits were there is regulation
  • Hierarchy helps large enterprises bring structure to their activities
  • Hierarchy tend to develop in all societies whether they are intended or not, therefore imposing a hierarchy gives an organization a chance both to impose the order they want – and choose the leaders – and rather than accepting the hierarchy and leaders that emerge.
  • Hierarchy allows for succession planning
  • Reduce illegal behaviour: maybe not a big issue in your twenty-first century office but this can be an issue. It can also be a particular issue when people rise to the top of a hierarchy and find the organizational controls they had before are gone: they have nobody to report to. Could this explain some of the sexual and business mis-conduct that has been in the media in recent times?

Benefits to the individual:

  • Hierarchy creates psychological safety, individuals know where they fit in and what is expected of them. They know who they need to pay attention to.
  • Hierarchy reduces cognitive load and fear, in part because of the psychological safety it creates.
  • Hierarchy provides a career model: people know what advancement in the organization looks like and those who want advancement can map out a course to achieve that.

Benefits to a team:

  • Hierarchy creates clear areas of responsibility which enables team members and creates focus within the team.
  • Hierarchy provides team members with a structures and helps them accept their position. On the whole people are accepting of hierarchy and accept the position. (Perhaps because they also know how they can advance their position.)
  • Hierarchy allows a mix of strong and weak personalities to work together. While hierarchy can be used by powerful formal leads to suppress weaker staff hierarchy cuts both ways. Team decision making can be improved when hierarchy facilities equitable discussion between strong personalities.
  • Formal hierarchy, with formal leaders, actually puts a responsibility on the leaders to ensure balance and allow weaker personalities to have their say. (While this can be abused when it is abused it should be clear to all concerned that the leader is not upholding their part of the bargain.)
  • In a recognised hierarchy the senior people have a responsibility to moderate and listen to all. Where there is no hierarchy few may feel that responsibility and a single strong voice may dominate the weak.
  • Where there is no hierarchy and multiple strong personalities the result can be conflict and disagreement. Without the hierarchy it can be hard to resolve such problems.
  • Hierarchy provides for decision makers, perhaps one, perhaps more. Having recognised decision makers can make for rapid decisions: people know who to go to and that person knows they have responsibility. Conversely, where decisions are made by consensus decision making can be slow or absent entirely.

Recently I observed a team which made most decisions by consensus. But as one strong personality rarely agreed with the others any decision they didn’t agree with became a battle field. Most team members kept quiet and nothing changed. Sometimes another strong personality would try and force the decision through but this was usually unsuccessful. Only when several other team members were prepared to take sides. As a result consensus became a recipe for not changing.

Of these arguments the ones I find most interesting are those which concern the emergence of social hierarchy. I’ve certainly seen this – even in organizations with a formal hierarchy. Emergent leadership and hierarchy can be a good thing. They can also be a bad thing.

I can immediately think of several teams I’ve worked with were one of the developers – sometimes a relatively junior one at that – emerge as leaders and the team adopted a hierarchy oriented towards that leader. On one occasion that leader was me and I like to think I brought an order and structure which was beneficial. But I’ve seen other occasions were the leader who emerged was at odds with others in the organization with the result of tension.

I expect the idea of emergent hierarchy is immediately recognisable to those schooled in emergent design and behaviour. The question becomes: should organizations accept this? Or should they try to guide it?

In the extreme should an organization fight an emergent hierarchy which conflicts with the aims and goals of the organization? And is it worth the effort?

So far I have more questions than answers. I haven’t suddenly become an advocate for hierarchy but I now recognised this is not a one sided discussion. I plan to write another blog when I get to the end of the book and have had a chance to think through the for and against arguments.

In the meantime I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments, just add them below.

Published on Java Code Geeks with permission by Allan Kelly, partner at our JCG program. See the original article here: In defence of hierarchy

Opinions expressed by Java Code Geeks contributors are their own.

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