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The first thing that comes to people’s mind when they think of hierarchy is total power and control, and they are right. That is precisely the origin of the word hierarchy (from the Greek hieros, meaning sacred, and archein, meaning to rule).

However, a hierarchy is much more than just power an control. If there is no hierarchy, there is no structure and, therefore, there is total chaos and anarchy.

There is a profound and pervasive misconception about hierarchies. What almost everyone gets wrong about a hierarchy, including many “experts,” is the believe that a hierarchy is about total control and restrictiveness and that by simply changing its shape/form, or by using semantics, it would no longer be restrictive.

The reason most people think negatively about hierarchies is because they have been lead to believe that a hierarchy is just about shapes and forms, or semantics, such as “flat,” “horizontal,” “vertical, ” etc., and thus, is a bad thing by default, and that by just tweaking it it would no longer be a hierarchy.

This is not only a crass mistake and misconception but also a dangerous one!

Some “experts” have even come up with little twists like “holacracies,” which is either a misnomer from holocracy, or a marketing strategy that some companies ( like Zappos) have adopted in a futile attempt to gain agility, transparency, accountability, employee engagement, and innovation.

One of the best examples of a true holocracy (with an ‘o’ not an ‘a’) in practice is scientific research. Suffices to look at the CERN experiments at LHC with thousands of researchers from a great number of institutions from many countries without a special chief executive officer and without a dominant or centralized hierarchy.

Nevertheless, the name, shape and/or form of a hierarchy is totally irrelevant.

What really matters in a hierarchy is its structure, because its structure determines everything else, such as its function, control, power, and more importantly, its restrictiveness or enhanciveness!

Just like the genotype (i.e., the structure) of a any biological creature determines its phenotype (i.e., its function).

A Hierarchy Is Much More That Just About Control & Efficiency!

All systems are hierarchically composed of Markov blankets all the way down to individual cells, all the way up to you and me, and all the way out to include elements of their environment. All organisms show a tendency to self-organize into a coherent whole despite them comprising a multiplicity of nested systems (i.e., Markov Blankets). They also continuously work to preserve their individual unity, thus maintaining a boundary that separates their internal states from their external milieu [1].

In a nutshell, a hierarchy is the fundamental backbone of any structure that allows for its maintenance and control, i.e., its survival.

You either have a hierarchy or you don’t. If you don’t have it, then you have a mess, laisser faire, or anarchy.

If you do have it, it can only be one of two types, the typical restrictive and tropophobic bureaucratic (i.e.Dominant Hierarchy) or, the still unknown, enhancive and tropophilic structure (i.e., Non-dominant hierarchy)

We know now that a hierarchy is a requirement for any system. Without it, there is no structure, no continuity, no survival. An example everyone can relate to is the human body. Obviously, the head is on top but that does not mean that the rest of the body is not important. Yes, we could live without an arm or a leg, or even without any of them, but it certainly would not be the best.

In the same vein, most businesses, organizations, communities, etc., have all been built as dominant hierarchies. And they could function without many parts of their structure, but again, that would not be optimal. Yet, this is how most businesses and organizations have been operating since the 1960s, that is, very inefficiently. As if parts of their structure had been severed due to the dominance of their hierarchy. The blame, of course, is put on the people and/or on some bureaucratic scape goat. The full responsibility, however, as we all know, resides entirely upon the person at the very top of the hierarchy, regardless of its dominance.

I like to compare the person on top of an organization to a horse rider in a cross-country equestrian event. The performance of the horse is almost entirely subjected to the ability of the rider. If the rider is not confident to hold the reins tight enough to gather the horse before an obstacle but not too tight as to keep the horse from exerting its power, the horse will not be able to jump properly. I say almost entirely because under a centralized hierarchy there is very little the rider can do since the horse has been equipped with a martingale (in addition to draw and running reins as well as a tongue tie in extremely dominant centralized hierarchies) to keep the horse from lifting its head thus deliberately restricting its power and, therefore, rendering the horse completely incapable of executing any jump.

This was not evident before the 1960s because the jumping courts back then had no high obstacles (there were no systems discontinuities or relevant uncertainties) and did not require any agility from the horse only brute force (i.e., workers were paid to obey not to think). The new requirements for successfully “traversing a cross-country course” only became evident since the 1960s.

Although many things have changed since the 1960s, one thing remains still very pervasive, namely, centralized hierarchies and, although you may not think so, chances are, you have one at your workplace and most probably a very dominant and, therefore, very inefficient hierarchy or “a horse with a martingale” and maybe even with a tongue tie!

Here is where most “riders” or CEOs seem to get lost, even OD and HR “experts.” Here is where businesses owners and organizations stumble and fall prey of “expert” consultants who confuse them even further by offering “state-of-the-art” schemes to “transform” their organizational structure into a myriad of shapes and forms, e.g. “flat,” “horizontal,” “holacracies,” etc., that do nothing to fundamentally change the centralized hierarchy but simply fiddle around the edges of their bureaucratic shapes and forms, i.e., their phenotypes.

The solution to the centralized-and-inefficient-hierarchy problem is to free the horse from the martingale (in addition to the tongue tie) by changing it to a decentralized & enhancive hierarchy, and stop wasting precious time and money playing with its phenotype by making it flat or any other fancy shape.

To this day, the best example of a truly decentralized and enhancive hierarchy is Blockchain!

There is a very powerful process that has been designed for over six decades to accomplish this powerful genotypic organizational al transformation. It produces immediate results (within 24 hours!) not only in terms of employee engagement, accountability, motivation, collaboration, innovation, agility, etc., but even more importantly, in terms of creating an organizational environment conducive to transparency, trust, and integrity. And, believe it or not, it can even be accomplished in a single day!

This process is called The Search Conference and Participative Design Workshop and was developed by Fred and Merrelyn Emery during 60 years and has been given to the world for free!

To the Health of Your Enhancively Tropophilic Organizational Hierarchy!

JC Wandemberg Ph.D.

President & Founder

Sustainable Systems International

About the author: Dr. Wandemberg is an international consultant, stocks trader, professor, and analyst of economic, environmental, social, managerial, marketing, and political issues. For the past 30 years Dr. Wandemberg has collaborated with corporations, communities, and organizations to integrate sustainability through self-transformation processes and Open Systems Design Principles, thus, catalyzing a Culture of Trust, Transparency, and Integrity.

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