Are we Addicted to Hierarchy and Command & Control?

Image credit: Dennis Skley

Are we Addicted to Hierarchy and Command & Control?

Erwin van der Koogh bio photo By Erwin van der Koogh Comment

I have been talking about self-organisation for years to hundreds of people at all levels of an organisation; Especially the last few days after the news Zappos is adopting Holocracy. I have talked to everyone from CEOs to call centre employees. But what strikes me every time is their responses. It always goes something like this: “That might be great for me/my team, but..”. And then fill in one of: “Everyone would only do the fun stuff. Who would keep the lights on?”, “That will never scale”, “they would just slack off all day” etc. Or my favourite pair: “Who will look after the daily operation” and “Who will look after strategy?”. So I started to wonder.. why can’t we even considering it?

Resistance to Change

The quick answer would be that people just have an innate resistance to change.
The problem with that answer (at least for me) is that I refuse to believe that is true. Most people voluntarily move out of their parents’ basements, get married, change jobs, travel the world and have kids.

Unclear benefits

“What is in it for me?”. Is the usually the next answer we look at. Is there anything in it for those people resisting? And is that benefit clear and achievable? It turns out this is also not likely to be the case. Most people would love more control over their work if you ask them. And there are a huge amount of companies who are adopting radical amounts of autonomy who are doing fine, or even spectacular.
Gore & Associates, Semco, Svenska Handelsbanken, Valve, Github are just the tip of the iceberg.
And it is also not that it is unclear how they do it. Click any of those links and they’ll tell you how they do it.

But even knowing that more autonomy is indeed better, proof that it is working and plenty of recipes to get there I still get the same excuses: “That would only work if you started that way”. “That will only work in Silicon Valley”, “Regulators would never allow us to do that”

Addiction maybe?

Which got me thinking.. There is one group of people that might know they should change, know how to change, but don’t: Addicts. So are we addicted to hierarchies and command & control?

I looked up the definition of addiction and came across the following:

ad•dic•tion (əˈdɪk ʃən)

 n. dependence on or commitment to a habit, practice, or habit-forming substance to the extent that its cessation causes trauma.

So if we are addicted, what could that trauma be? What will hurt when we abandon hierarchies and adopt more autonomy? I certainly do not have all the answers, but it has been a very interesting exercise going through some of the options:

  • Identity: We would be giving up our very specific place in an hierarchy.
  • Status: I am now Senior Dev Lead in a project.
  • Control: I can make sure X happens because I can tell everyone to.
  • Security: I am the most senior project manager and my manager is going to retire.
  • Belonging: I am part of this group of 12 people.

Those are some extremely powerful & basic human needs. So yes, messing about with this could certainly cause trauma.

Certainly more food for thought. What else is there in hierarchies that we need? And what do we do with this theory? How can we change our approach? What are our nicotine patches?