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Author Q&A: From Hierarchy to High Performance

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Key Takeaways

  • Management systems from the last century so not work in the modern age
  • There is a significant "management tax" in the current organisation structures which slows down innovation
  • The pace of change and the demand for more humanistic workplaces means organisations need to change the way they are structured and led
  • When these changes are made the results are amazing in terms of employee engagement, customer satisfaction and profitability
  • There are skills and techniques which leaders can learn to achieve these outcomes 

In their new book From Hierarchy to High Performance, Doug Kirkpatrick, Bill Sanders, Dawna Jones, Ozlem Brooke Erol, Josh Levine, Sue Bingham and Anna McGrath provide a series of essays designed to help “Unleash the Hidden Superpowers of Ordinary People to Realize Extraordinary Results”. 

The premise of the book is that the management structures and employee engagement systems that most organizations apply are not (may never have really been) relevant and useful for the 21st century.  The pace of change and the expectations of people for meaningful work and humanistic workplaces mean that businesses must change the way they deal with their people and when they do so the results are amazing terms of customer and employee satisfaction, profitability and sustainability. 

InfoQ spoke to Doug Kirkpatrick (as a representative of the authors) about the book. An extract from the book can be downloaded from here and the book can be purchased from here.

InfoQ: Why did you write this book - what is the underlying problem or challenge you are addressing by doing so?

Doug Kirkpatrick: As a father and career coach to two millennial daughters, I’ve seen through their eyes the human toll of working in an environment that sucks. Why do we even tolerate work environments riven by power trips, ego, toxic behaviors, and dysfunctional cultures? How can we create workplaces that are generative, vibrant, creative and life-affirming? A small percentage of organizations have created those kinds of workplaces. Most organizations won’t change unless and until they’re faced with an existential crisis. Can we nudge workplaces to transform, not because they’re in crisis but because it’s better for their business and the people who work there? That’s the challenge we’re trying to address.

InfoQ: Who it the book for?  How do you ensure you are not just preaching to the converted?

Kirkpatrick: The book is for leaders who are in a position to initiate transformational change and would like some guidance in their decision-making process mixed with a bit of inspiration. I would say that it’s also for anyone working in an organization who finds themselves intrigued by the title and wants to learn more in the hope that we can generate some “heat” from the bottom layers of hierarchies by forcing people at the top to confront some tough questions, like “why do we have four layers of management in a ten-person office?”. That’s a real situation that I recently encountered, by the way.

InfoQ: The title of the book indicates that hierarchy is somehow bad or prevents high performance - why is that the case, and what is the alternative?

Kirkpatrick: Hierarchy isn’t, per se, “bad”. It’s just costly when applied to human organizations as the primary method of organizing. Our vision is for organizations that are heterarchies or networks, where command-and-control and the iron fist of authority is restricted and everyone is respected and given a voice. It’s entirely possible for heterarchies and networks to have people form nested hierarchies within them. It’s just that such arrangements are voluntary, not imposed by someone in power, and can be undone when the participants decide that the arrangement no longer serves their interest or the interest of the organization. Hierarchies are also extremely costly. Gary Hamel writes eloquently about the “management tax”, or the direct and indirect cost of bureaucracy, which he estimates at about $3 trillion USD per year. The management tax shows up in miscommunication between layers of the bureaucracy, unnecessary permission steps for activities, and hiring managers-of-others for people who are perfectly capable of managing themselves. Since management is the least efficient activity of any organization, why create cumbersome, complex structures to exponentially grow the inefficiency?

InfoQ: Why should organisations care about humanistic work practices and higher purpose - isn’t the purpose of a business to make money? 

Kirkpatrick: I would argue that the purpose of a business has never been to make money. Any businessperson who thinks like that should seriously consider doing something else with their life. The purpose of a business is to fulfill human economic needs, and do so sustainably in a way that creates more value for customers than it destroys in consuming resources to create that value (also known as “profit”). It’s really not rocket science: there are only eight basic human economic needs and always have been: food, clothing, shelter, communication, transportation, entertainment, personal security and health care. Every business that has ever existed or ever will exist is about fulfilling one or more of those human needs or creating productive assets for those who directly fulfill those needs. You either play the game of work well and do so sustainably (i.e., at a profit) or not (at a loss)—one or the other over some relevant time period. That’s the purpose of a business—sustainably fulfilling human needs, which is a very noble thing to do when done humanely with great respect and care for people: employees, customers, suppliers, community members and all other stakeholders. If business is all about fulfilling human needs, why would anyone want to be part of an organization that does so with blatant disregard for human dignity? Profit is actually a means (providing the condition of sustainability) to an end (fulfilling human needs), not the end itself.

InfoQ: What are some of the practices that need to be stopped and are there alternates to them in the high performing organizations?

Kirkpatrick: So many practices need to be stopped that it would be hard to catalog them in a few short paragraphs.

I would start with using different language. We need to replace our dehumanizing, industrial age vocabulary with language that reflects deep respect for people. Once we acknowledge the humanity of people in our language (and by extension in our work cultures), we will start to see other dehumanizing practices like traditional performance reviews transform or disappear.

Here are some examples of language that needs to change, and soon:

Human Resources (see also: HR). In the 1980s, organizations replaced the old concept of a “personnel department” with the new, improved concept of a “human resources department”. Management saw the term “personnel” as overly supportive of workers in the brave new world of reengineering. As journalist Cliff Weathers noted, new efficiency technologies called for a new generation of panopticonic overseers aligned with management to keep workers (resources) on track.

A copy machine is a resource. A forklift is a resource. A parking lot is a resource. People aren’t resources. Henry Mintzberg said it best: “A resource is a thing. I am a human being. I am not a human resource.”

Our People (see also: My People, Your People, His People, Her People, Your People, Their People, Its People). Perhaps we should reserve possessive pronouns for things (not people) that can actually be possessed?

Empowerment. Empowerment programs usually involve someone with power lending his or her power to someone with less power. The problem with this scenario is that what has been loaned can be repossessed at any time. People either have power to do certain things or they don’t. Revokable empowerment is an unsustainable oxymoron.

Employee (see also: Employees). Dictionary.com defines employee as “a person working for another person or business firm for pay”. In an era of talent wars, when robot managers are now giving orders to humans, that definition doesn’t seem very motivating. Not coincidentally, this usage sprang up in the mid-1800s, right around the advent of the Industrial Age. Much of American labor jurisprudence reflects this glaring dichotomy between superiors and ‘inferiors”. The legal doctrine of respondeat superior, for example, is derived from the common law of masters and servants. Would a truthful job description labeled “servant” attract millennials to a rigid command-and-control business hierarchy? Not likely.

Direct Reports (see also: Indirect Reports). More lazy language that reinforces the artificial distinction between superiors and inferiors. Exactly when did people consent to become “reports”?

Boss. Conveys the devaluing notion that one person has all the answers, and merely needs to issue orders to inferiors to get the work done.

Headcount. Apparently, it’s not important to know whether a person’s entire body is engaged at work.

FTEs: Where bosses exile fellow human beings to a nameless, soulless, acronymic existence.

Driving Engagement: Out on the range, where people are cattle. Git along, little dogies!

Blue-Collar vs. White-Collar: An industrial-age labor law distinction between people who work with their hands and “professionals”. Since the so-called “blue-collar” workers I’m familiar with have high-paying roles with elevated cognitive content (industrial electro-mechanics often create ladder logic programming for PLCs, for example), this absurd and arbitrary distinction needs to soon become extinct, like the dinosaurs.

Start with language, and other practices will follow.

InfoQ: A common situation we have seen is that a company embarks on a “transformation”, bringing in new ideas and new ways of working and spends lots of money on a change program to implement the new practices, yet a couple of years later all that has changed is the labels and language people use, none of the anticipated benefits and culture shifts have happened.  Why is this the case and what can be done to prevent this cycle from happening?

Kirkpatrick: Gary Hamel says two things are needed for meaningful, effective transformation: 1) leaders need to be willing to give up power and 2) organizations need to cohere around simple, clear principles. That resonates with me, coming from my Morning Star background where there was zero command authority and the entire governance of the enterprise was based on two core principles. Because every situation is different, it’s hard to generalize about reasons for failure in change management. Deep, sustainable change is dependent on both mindset (culture) and systems (ways of working). If companies are stuck, then the failure lies in one or the other of those domains, or both. What does the change project post-mortem disclose? 

One of the reasons I like organizing around simple, clear principles is that they are easy to understand. If you embrace the principle of not using force or coercion, for example, then the corollaries are zero command authority and no power to unilaterally fire or discipline. Since command authority is binary (you either have it or you don’t), it’s pretty easy to detect violations and deal with them. A nice benefit of adopting that principle is that you develop stronger leaders. Command authority causes leadership muscles to atrophy, it leads to laziness and power-mongering. When you develop your leadership muscles (because command authority is not an option) using influence, trust, communication, respect and persuasion, you become a stronger leader.

InfoQ: As technical influencers and technical leaders what are some concrete things that the InfoQ readers can do to help bring these changes into their own organizations?

Kirkpatrick: Start a book club around the future of work with your leadership team and find two or three books to work through in a six-month period. Find which lessons resonate and which don’t. Theorize an experiment (on your own or with a consultant) that allows you to demonstrate transformative change in all (if you’re small) or part of your organization. Make sure the change is big enough to be noticeable and attract interest but beware of creating chaos or disorientation. If you’re experimenting in a small part of a larger organization, make sure that you satisfy the informational and other needs of the larger domain but still honor your original transformative intent.

About the Book Authors 

Bill Sanders is a business transformation and process innovation expert. He drives organizations to execute on innovative strategy using their existing strengths and unlocking latent potential. Using his proven and holistic approach, Bill rapidly bridges the gap between strategy and execution by identifying the misalignments between strategy, goals, process and execution, and then designing elegant solutions that close those gaps, accelerating growth, profitability and innovation.

Dawna Jones specializes in releasing imperceptible blocks to personal leadership and company transformation while advancing decision-making skills and mindset to lead in complex fast-moving environments. Dawna's insights enable you to perceive the sub-surface influences so you can collectively adapt fast with less stress in the midst of chaotic transformation. 

Ozlem Brooke Erol worked at IBM for 11 years and held positions as VP of Sales and Marketing in a few others. She started her first business www.yourbestlifeinc.com helping individuals step into a more meaningful and fulfilling life by using their gifts and passion. She is still doing career coaching to make sure more people are aligned with what they do at work and be more fulfilled.

Josh Levine is an educator, designer, and best-selling author, but above all, he is on a mission to help organizations design a culture advantage. His new book Great Mondays: How to Design a Company Culture Employees Love presents the framework and tools business leaders need to understand, design, and manage their own culture. 

Sue Bingham is the co-author of Creating the High Performance Workplace: It's Not Complicated to Develop a Culture of Commitment and the founder of HPWP Group. Having been at the forefront of creating positive change in the workplace for more than 35 years, Sue is widely recognized as an expert in helping successful leaders achieve impactful, lasting change in their behavior and in their organizations.

Doug Kirkpatrick is an organizational change consultant, TEDx and keynote speaker, executive coach, author, and educator. He is a regular contributor to the Huffington Post blog on Great Work Cultures and the author of "Beyond Empowerment: The Age of the Self-Managed Organization." As a partner in NuFocus Strategic Group, an international consulting firm, he leads organizational change and education initiatives around the world.

Anna McGrath, for the past 15 years, has used her vibrant people skills to help organizations--from traditional hierarchies to bleeding-edge start-ups--become smarter and healthier in both business and culture. She has built a reputation as a coach who embodies love, authenticity, and humor while advising leaders that are open to learning. And now that she's at Godfrey Dadich Partners, Anna aims to continue her work both internally and externally with new and existing clients. 

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