Alternatives to Hierarchy: Breaking the Bonds of Mind

Tom Peters

Dealing with new technology and a dense fabric of global competitors requires perpetual change and lightning-fast reactions. Therefore, almost all of our organizations need revision, especially our largest firms. Specifically, hierarchy is under siege.

We know the new form: fewer layers, work teams, dissolved barriers between functions and firms. But getting there is tough. The problem is not the mechanics, or even embedded resistance to change. The chief culprit is hierarchy's grip on our minds.

Contrived order of the most rigid sort was required to counteract the pervasive fear of the unknown that raged long ago. That order was derived from religion and came to be reflected in hierarchy with authority residing at the top.

My Swedish colleague, Professor Gunnar Hedlund, exhumed Athenian scholar Dionysius the Aeropagite's fifth-century writings, which appear to be the first discussion of hierarchy: "We must show, most pious of sons, that our hierarchy is inspired by God and that it implies a divine and deifying science. ... However, take care not to reveal indiscreetly these most sacred things ... to the uninitiated, reverently communicating sacred things only to holy persons." Dionysius also lays out nine distinct ranks, from seraphim at the top to angels on the front line.

Hedlund, in an unpublished manuscript, extracts 11 precepts from Dionysius' model. Among them: "Hierarchy is inspired by God." "Promotion is only possible upwards." "A basic objective is to become more and more like the boss." "There is no bypassing of authority." "The boss knows everything."

Such ideas, with astonishingly little modification, still influence the structure of everything, from the church and the state to the way we do science.

Science, the chief provider of metaphors for modern civilization, is also structured in a highly rational fashion. The turmoil in science today, like that in business, is aimed at bursting hierarchy's bonds. In the bestselling and critically acclaimed book, Chaos, James Gleick describes how the new science of complexity (called chaos) is upsetting age-old ideas of order: as long as the world has had [scientists] inquiring into the laws of nature, it has suffered a special ignorance about disorder in the atmosphere, in the fluctuations of wildlife populations, in the oscillations of the heart and the brain."

Chaos challenges core notions: "No matter how elaborate linear mathematics could get, ... it inevitably misled scientists about their overwhelmingly non-linear world. ... Clouds are not spheres. Mountains are not cones. ... The new geometry [of chaos] mirrors a universe that is rough, not rounded, scabrous, not smooth. ... The pits and tangles are more than blemishes distorting the classic shapes of Euclidian geometry. They are often the key to the essence of the thing."

Scientists' orderly models seek a quiescent equilibrium. The real world doesn't work that way. For instance, the smallest jostle to a system can set it off in new directions. Chaoticians speak of such things as the "butterfly effect," in which the beat of a butterfly's wing in Beijing generates a ripple that creates a devastating hurricane in the South Atlantic. Gleick explains more simply, "A man leaves the house in the morning 30 seconds late, a flower pot misses his head by a few millimeters, and then he is run over by a truck. ... Small perturbations in one's daily trajectory can have large consequences."

The high-speed computer, which has made the study of complexity (chaotic systems) possible, also is a scene of battle over hierarchy. The late physicist Heinz Pagels referred to the vicious tug of war between those who see the computer as a very fast adding machine that performs rote tasks in a serial, hierarchical fashion ("computationists"), and those who design computers that resemble the human brain ("connectionists").

The brain's network of abundant and redundant connections allows us to learn, adjust, and adapt—which traditional computers can't do. That is, we can't add as fast as computers, but we're dynamite at recognizing faces and making metaphors. The connectionists, who speak of computer operating systems that resemble "neural networks," are trying to emulate our skills.

The non-linear science of complexity and revolutionary computers that resemble the brain and reject hierarchical approaches to computation are important to our efforts to blast away hierarchies at General Motors or the local five and dime. The powerful new metaphors of complexity from the citadels of science may finally permit us to escape Dionysius' centuries-old grasp.

The science of chaos is perhaps misnamed. For in the end it is about order—a higher and more complex order. The new order, translated into business organization, may help us deal with the hurricanes buffeting the world economy. "Connectionist" alternatives to plodding, linear, steep hierarchies are popping up. We are conceiving of organizations and sets of organizations as networks, governed by fecund relationships among fully empowered and informed front-line people.

Such organizations without hierarchy do look chaotic by old standards. But on closer examination, the richer (albeit different) order may be the only path to adapting instantaneously amid today's tightly woven network of competitors, financiers, suppliers, distributors, and customers.

Our knee-jerk rejection of true alternatives to comfortable hierarchies is much more than "resistance to change." It is primordial resistance to traditional models of religion and science, the human touchstones that have guided civilization for the last several thousand years.

(c) 1988 TPG Communications.

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