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Why companies need hierarchy -- not power grabs

Editor's note: Longtime readers of SearchCIO columnist Joseph Flahiff, an expert in Agile development and business agility, know that he is a big proponent of leaders who listen and employees who feel empowered. In this video, he offers advice that on the face of it seems to contradict that workplace perspective: Organizations should embrace hierarchy. The caveat here is that leaders should not confuse hierarchy with power. Read the full transcript, edited for clarity, below.

A little bit of contrarian advice for you: Never get rid of hierarchy.

Whoa, scary. [We think], "Hierarchy is evil, right?" "Hierarchy means I have an invisible gun?" No, that's power. Hierarchy doesn't mean power. It doesn't have to. Hierarchy is a structure -- a structure of communication and a structure of interaction. It doesn't have to be a structure of power.

Hierarchy structure

When you look at the traditional triangle of an organization, the executives down to the worker people, or you flip it on its head -- that's what you always hear in the agile world. They say, and in management consulting they say, "Flip that over, be a servant leader." I like the idea of servant leadership, but I don't like that flipped over triangle because all that does is put somebody else in the power position -- the one-up, one-down relationship.

Totally flat feels good because everyone gets a say in how the whole organization is run, but it is very slow.

Implicit in what I said even -- here's the triangle, here's the people who are doing the work. Did you hear it? That means these people [at the top] aren't doing work. Leaders don't do work, apparently. But that's how it gets described.

Why we need hierarchy

Hierarchy is actually a really good thing because it gives structure, it gives clarity to who is doing what, when where. In large organizations -- I'm talking more than a dozen people, more than 20, 30, 40 or 50 -- people even; we are talking hundreds or thousands of people in an organization -- you need hierarchy.

Now, [the organization's structure] doesn't have to be super tall, but please don't make it flat. I've seen [flat] organizations -- Zappos, yeah, I've heard about it. I've also observed holacracy in action. It's cool, it's very engaging, the people who are in it love it, but, boy, does it take a lot of time. Hierarchy can help you with that by distributing those organizational and strategic decisions out here [with the leaders] and keep tactical and implementation decisions over here [with people on the teams]. If you have this kind of hierarchy, then you have the speed that you lack in a totally flat organization. Totally flat feels good because everyone gets a say in how the whole organization is run, but it is very slow.

Mutual respect needed

So keep the hierarchy, but remove the power from it. Respect. Both parts of the organizations need each other. The teams and individual contributing people need the leadership to point direction and give guidance in large organizations, but not necessarily in smaller organizations. And, the people who are in that leadership role need the people delivering and doing the implementation work or there is no engine.

[Leaders] are directing the car and doing the steering. [The contributing workers] are the engine, they are making the motor run right. Both need each other. So, this is the alchemy of hierarchy.

About the author:
Joseph Flahiff is an internationally recognized leadership and organizational agility expert at Whitewater Projects Inc. He has worked with Fortune 50 and Fortune 500 companies, government agencies, startups and publicly traded firms, where he has been recognized as an experienced, pragmatic and innovative adviser. He is the author of Being Agile in a Waterfall World: A practical guide for complex organizations. Learn more at

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