Ignore the Hierarchy!

Hierarchy is one of the defining cultural properties of modern civilisation. It is part of a reinforcing loop that encourages conformity and includes leadership and structure.

From experience, I know that you cannot change culture directly. In the Enterprise Agile Coach Bootcamp we use the Enterprise Change Pattern which defines levers we can adjust, and iterate small changes that slowly adapt the reinforcing loop to something more aligned with success in today’s world.

Levers for Cultural Change - AWA Training Material
Image: Levers for Cultural Change – AWA training and consultancy material.

Reinforcing loops that make culture difficult to change have been a part of our society for more than half a millennium. We have already gone through some major identity shifts, which combined with technological advancements have changed the way we structure ourselves. You can hear more about this from my 5 minute lightening talk on Identity and the Agile Mindset recorded at Agile 2017 in Orlando and by playing the timeline game on the Enterprise Agile Coach Bootcamp.

History of Agile and Organisational Change Timeline game
Image: The timeline game for finding patterns for organisational change throughout history.

What we learn on the timeline journey and through systems thinking is that hierarchy in organisations is only the outward facing part of a deep belief system. This is entrenched in our very basic assumptions about ourselves.

The belief that we are independent beings has led to theories of evolution that have shaped our capitalist society, our organisational life, and more importantly, the way we relate to each other.

Many of the defining structural elements of hierarchy we can observe in our organisations, within ourselves and our belief systems, can be explained by Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs. For example, much of senior management’s behaviour in organisations, reward and retention schemes and consumer mass-marketing, are based around the 4th level of needs. This is the “Esteem” need for status, recognition and esteem through accomplishment.

Maslows hierarchy of needs

However, many of us now believe that we are equals; that the CEO is no better a person than the cleaner. The CEO does a different job for sure, but that doesn’t make them better. However, many of us still have a deep seated belief that somehow the CEO is better and this is shown in our behaviours. CEO’s have shown more attributes that are required for success in a ‘survival of the fittest’ based world, established in a belief system that we are individuals, and that we have limited resource which we need to fight over or acquire.

The natural conclusion of Lean thinking and Agility, however, moves us towards empowered network structures where everyone on the team works together equally towards the goal of satisfying the customer. We fail and succeed together. We don’t reward individuals more than we reward the whole team.

Hierarchy is a belief system based upon status ego that one person is somehow better than another because they have attained attributes that make them better suited to the existing cultural structure and norms. By supporting this belief you are playing a part in the reinforcing loop that keeps that culture alive.

This week, I was invited to speak at a large financial company’s inaugural Product Owners’ Community of Practice event. 140 POs from around the world flew into London to hear their leaders speak, participate in learning workshops, and hear from industry experience.

This was an amazing day with a clear customer-centric focus and finding the real cross-function team needed to:

  • lower the cost of change (agility),
  • make better products with faster customer feedback,
  • and have fun while you are doing it.

A question was raised at the leadership panel, ‘How can I work with all the people I truly need to get value to customers when we are structured like we are?’.

The leader’s advice was ‘Ignore the Hierarchy’.

I found this a refreshing and deep response. It is a primary first order solution that aligns the organisation’s goals with their customers, and with the belief system that we are not independent individuals fighting for status and survival. We are in fact interdependent people that align our success to the success of the customer, the team, the organisation, and ultimately society.

This is the natural conclusion of Lean, Agility, and Customer focus. However, it starts and can only succeed if you examine your own belief in hierarchy and status.

Please review your own hierarchical beliefs and analyse what traits you value above others and where this comes from. What needs do you have that are unfulfilled which cause you to judge another in terms of being better or worse? Does this serve your world view? And how you would like the environment you work in to be?

Only by aligning our beliefs to our goals will we ever succeed in anything meaningful. Helping others do this is the role of the coach, but that is another post for another time.

Practical methods and tools for this personal learning journey are covered in both our double ICAgile Certified Enterprise Agile Coach Bootcamp, which runs online, London, Europe and the US.

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