Saturday, February 26, 2011

The redundancy of hierarchies

When I joined the corporate world, I was introduced to a set hierarchy, a job description and a SOP for getting things done. All very good tools to get going and knowing what to do, when and with whom. I also found people getting bogged down only within the boundaries defined by these tools. If we fail to recognise and utilise them as the tools they are meant to be and start using them as boundaries beyond which we cannot perform, that is where mediocricity starts seeping in our performance and output.

Having worked as an independent programmer before experiencing corporate hierarchies imbued in me a spirit of entrepreneurship and ownership. With this mind-set, I always found it difficult to restrain myself to such self-made boundaries. The ground rules which I set for myself were -
- Never quit thinking for yourself 
Go through the rules and processes given to you. Each one may be right independently, but may not apply when seen in context with other circumstances.

- Do not blindly follow the letter, rather apply the spirit behind the rulesIs it right for the business? No steps can ever be made for the detriment of the business. However, many people will stubbornly apply the letter of the law in a manner it was never intended to be.

- Question what does not sound rightJust because we have been doing it for years does not mean we will keep doing it tomorrow.

- Do the right thingIf it calls for a change of procedures, however tougher it may be to accomplish, as compared to doing nothing and being on the right side of the rules, go for the change.

What hierarchies propagate is exactly the opposite. Obey orders, follow the crowd, go with the flow. All very fine for assembly line units and areas where discipline and uniformity are called for to achieve team targets. However when your goals are to achieve an empowered organisation where innovation and creativity are valued, a different approach is required.

Hierarchies advance the supposition that there are two sets of resources - thinkers and doers. In reality each level has a proportion of think time and do time to invest in order to work effectively. Depending on the role you are playing (as opposed to the level you are in the hierarchy), the ratio of think time and do time you are expected to spend can vary.

In today's socially networked offices, with informal flows of communication and getting work done gaining more ground, one can no longer depend on hierarchies and coming through 'proper channels' to achieve objectives. When rigid hierarchies are imposed and independent thought is smothered, it leads to group inertia. Committees and forums are sought to be formed to bring about the elusive consensus to move forward. Nobody is willing to move forward till 'everybody' ratifies the action as required. The responsibilities and consequences are deliberated to the minutest detail, in essence killing innovative ideas. No one is willing to define and acccept the risks involved in moving forward, thereby de-facto accepting the risks of not making the move.

Organizations are still reluctant to change the old power structures and bureaucracies brought in by traditional hierarchies.
In an environment where economic scenarios change every week, no variable is predictable or constant, decisions are needed to be made more and more at the ground level. There is no longer the comfort of getting back to the corporate office for a decision. You would have lost the opportunity in the meantime. The decision makers on the other side of the table want to deal with people who can take the decisions on the table.

It will take a few mavericks to rock the boat. There is a need for people who take nothing for granted, question everything, shake the status quo and bring in a little bit of constructive turbulence. What is needed now are not departments and hierarchies to take care of funcitons in silos.

A different approach to setting up structures is to identify the projects and tasks at hand and set up teams which are empowered to perform these tasks with complete ownership, while not losing sight of the organization's goals and objectives. This enables us to harness individual strengths, fix responsibilities for actions and move forward as a single team to achieve common purpose.