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HRHeadStart #22: Hierarchical Organizations; Depressing Math; Straight Talk
The Talent Agenda
Perhaps there is no word more decried in management and HR than “hierarchy”. Often used as a proxy for rigid, the term is used to suggest an organization where information only flows through a chain of command. An organization where frontline innovation is stifled and where silos are inevitable. An organization where leaders might manage multi-million dollar budgets, but must get sign-offs on small investments. An organization where status is dependent on factors like titles, pay and number of people managed.
This needs to be addressed, but hierarchy alone is not the culprit. Hierarchy can be useful in many contexts, particularly for differentiating thought and focus. In a well-designed hierarchy, each leader simply does not do a bigger version of the work of the leader below, but instead each layer has a varying levels of problem complexity, time horizons and time allocation.
A well-designed vertical organization with distinct roles can empower individuals by creating external accountability (expectations that a role must deliver) and motivate internal responsibilities (discretionary effort).
Humans have the tendency to fall for two delusions that limit our potential and life satisfaction. Firstly, the concept of “Depressing Math” shows us that while we think we have countless weeks in our lives, the number is actually just a few thousands. Once you visualize it, it looks very countable. It means there’s limited time for doing all the things you want to do. Secondly, we think that our future is determined by the past. But actually it is determined by our present - what we choose to do now creates the next pathway, and the next and so on. The future is a function of our current priorities and decisions. Read on this brilliant essay on the joy-deficit we face and how we can flip it into a surplus.
A Productive Workout
If you are curious to explore the topic of Organization Design, here is a quick video to introduce you to the basic concepts. And here is a case study on Syngenta (a plant science company). While it's dated, it has some great materials to evaluate a company's situation and think about the type of organization structure that would be suitable. Work on it alone or with a friend and feel free to exchange notes with me by replying to this email.
Straight talk helps. Immensely. It makes life 10x easier. Employees are like sensors - adept at detecting what’s happening on the ground, what’s working and what’s not. The job of leaders is to create a psychologically safe environment for employees to speak up and listen to them keenly.