An Elegant and Efficient Structure
In 1947, on the heels of the Allies’ victory, organizational theorists adopted Max Weber’s bureaucracy ideas from the 1920’s and gave birth to the modern hierarchical organizational structure. Inspired by the military, this paradigm would lead the United States and other capitalist countries into an age of business productivity that the world had never seen.
A hierarchical organizational structure required a simple formula – one person generates strategy and gives orders. Because of their unique perspective, executives think, while everyone else follows orders. Leaders believed that bureaucracy was the most efficient way to set up and manage a business organization, and critical to enabling companies to achieve maximum productivity.
Victory over the competition required a well-defined hierarchical management structure that delineated lines of communication and assigned responsibilities and authority. An employee who skipped levels to share an idea or concept risked a figurative court marshal. It was career suicide to talk to your boss’s boss or to do anything that might make your direct supervisor look bad.
As these organizations became more efficient, their people became less engaged. Eventually, their ability to respond to change lagged and innovation suffered.
Organizational Egalitarianism and Inclusivity
However, when there is a military, there are often rebels. When they first arrived on the scene, these rebels were long on idealism but short on organization. Driven by the dogma that better decisions and strategies are the byproduct of more and diverse voices, they toppled the hierarchy within their organizations until the structure was almost flat.
Gone was the organizational system whereby employees followed orders without question; instead, every voice was equal and every voice was valued. Because they had proximity to the situation, problem-solving and decision-making became the group’s responsibility.
The community invited everyone to provide insight and direction, and the process seemed to be more important than the results. The theory was that this process would inspire innovative ideas from any person in the company, rather than relying on a charismatic commander.
Instead, organizational engagement increased while decision-making became slower. At times, no decisions were made until everyone had their say. Despite hours of meetings, these teams accomplished very little. While buy-in and contribution may have increased, decisions were vulnerable to groupthink and bogged down through an effort to achieve consensus. And they waited for the brilliant ideas to arrive, but they seldom did.
If the answer is not a CEOcracy (authoritarian ruled by a CEO) or communal, ruled by consensus, what is the solution to maintaining efficiency while engaging the workforce, keeping pace with a rapidly changing world, and inspiring innovation?
From Perspective OR Proximity to Perspective AND Proximity
In the years since WWII, major militaries have been challenged by tough adversaries who have inferior weapons and training. This asymmetric warfare has required militaries to adapt to adversaries that bring the advantage of highly committed soldiers who believe strongly in their mission and make decisions quickly based on what they see in front of them. Instead of one general, hundreds of decision-makers would do what the generals would do if they were on the front lines.
How do they replicate the decision-makers? First, by instilling the same values of the leader into the army by hiring and inspiring. Second, by developing decision-making competencies in every soldier.
A Distributed Organizational Structure
If this distributed structure of the military can win, so can organizations. It requires building a hierarchical structure where leaders push decision-making down and out and develop a talent strategy of staffing with people who have similar values and excellent decision-making skills.
Accomplishing these two things is critical to success, but the pathway to achieving these varies. Several authors and experts describe a process that has worked in their organizations or aligns with a theory. However, without adapting the model to an organization’s personality, values, and culture, even these great ideas will be relegated to the trash heap of past managerial fads.
I hypothesize that when we adopt a model without questioning or adapting, or improving it to serve our organizations, we have substituted one authoritarian (The CEO) for another (The Expert).
Build an Advice Culture within Your Business
It starts with an advice culture. This culture rewards “not knowing” and requires receiving data from others affected by the decision. However, the decision is still made by only one person who is responsible to consider others’ input and to accept or decline the advice. Enlisting the help of a consultant who understands the objectives but adapts the pathway is a great start. It is nearly impossible to build a new structure while leading through the old one. When organizations draft us to help, we begin speaking about an advice culture. We model the first occurrence by our discovery process, where we spend all of the time learning and none of it pontificating.
By building an advice culture, we have the foundation of an organizational structure that capitalizes on the collective knowledge of every employee. This structure will be filled with people who are thinking, active, passionate participants. They will bring their creativity and initiative to the business and create a tidal wave of energy to keep pace with a rapidly changing economic and social environment.
We do not just imagine this; we have seen it.
No matter how brilliant, no one person can manage even a medium-size company effectively without multiplying their value system and decision-making acumen. The economic and social environment is too complicated and changes too rapidly. Curious to know more? Contact us.
About the Author: Jody Popple, PhD is Director of Family Business Services & Women’s Leadership Development at Psynet Group.