Wikipedia definitions REALLY help. What would we do without Wikipedia? I am a sometimes donor because my goodness it’s helpful. It’s also a superb example of a non-hierarchical entity — a heterarchy.

Here’s (a slightly edited to remove biological references) what Wikipedia says about a heterarchy.

A heterarchy is a system of organization where the elements of the organization are unranked (non-hierarchical) or where they possess the potential to be ranked a number of different ways.

In social and information sciences, heterarchies are networks of elements in which each element shares the same “horizontal” position of power and authority, each playing a theoretically equal role.

A heterarchy may be parallel to a hierarchy, subsumed to a hierarchy, or it may contain hierarchies; the two kinds of structure are not mutually exclusive. In fact, each level in a hierarchical system is composed of a potentially heterarchical group which contains its constituent elements.

The concept of heterarchy was first employed in a modern context by Warren McCulloch in 1945.

As Carole L. Crumley has summarised, “[h]e examined alternative cognitive structure(s), the collective organization of which he termed heterarchy. He demonstrated that the human brain, while reasonably orderly was not organized hierarchically. This understanding revolutionized the neural study of the brain and solved major problems in the fields of artificial intelligence and computer design.”

I first heard this term in 2008. As I was already discovering non-hierarchical systems, Agile and Scrum teams and self-managed organisations like Semco, Morning Star and W L Gore.

Since then, I’ve wanted to dismantle hierarchies.

And been met with ridicule at times, social science arguments, historical and even examples from nature that prove hierarchies are inevitable.

All of this just made me more determined to seek out how and where non-hierarchical systems prevail and are proven to be better than hierarchical systems.

But how can we govern without Monarchs, Presidents and Prime Ministers?

But how can we be led in organisations without Chief Executives and Vice-Presidents/Directors?

You may think that. Because ALL of the systems for almost ALL of the ages were created by people who wanted to lead. AND control. Dominate, direct, have power.

What if people created systems that weren’t based on birthright privileges, caste, social status, wealth, aggression and dominance?

For every 10 great leaders in hierarchical power positions, we can think of 1 awful dictatorial abuser of that position and power. Or the other way around even.

But Dr King Junior, Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Angela Merkel, Jacinda Ardern — they were/are powerful leaders at the apex of their movement or government and they depend on a hierarchy to achieve their aims surely?

Yes. And they are different to most leaders we’ve seen in history and in the business world.

It’s my hypothesis that hierarchies are NOT necessary. NOT natural. NOT the best form of the aggregation of human endeavour, efforts and ambitions.

The Heterarchy is.

And acclaimed author and Professor Isaac Getz somewhat agrees with me. The Author of Freedom Inc has this to say in his HBR article:

Become the guardian of the liberated team. When teams assume more responsibilities and make more decisions on their own, fewer remain for all levels of managers. Managers who accept this will be busy serving their teams while abstaining from using their formal authority.

And Getz also believes hierarchies are not the natural state of order we believe them to be. See here in People Management Magazine from 2017.

In it Getz confidently declares that: “Hierarchies — accepted by most as the ‘normal way’ of running a business — are unnatural, since they are counter to universal human needs.”

So there.

Ah, but we’ve seen this “movie” before. It’s dependent on a benevolent leader who sets it in motion, and then when they’re gone it defaults back so the system is more powerful and enduring than one person’s alternative (and temporary) departure from the hierarchical construct.

Yes, we’ve seen this too. Best Buy’s Results Only Work Environment (ROWE) is covered here and Jean-Francois Fabrist at FAVI is covered here.

Semi-heterarchical Basecamp’s recent implosion wasn’t nice to see. And then I saw Treehouse also having some wobbles after a failed buyout by Skillsoft (here)

Except it isn’t always this way either.

Morning Star, Semco WL Gore — as I quoted earlier enduring.

And there’s a LOT of self-managed examples that aren’t in the business school teaching realms yet but new and continuing ones are very much there. Buurtzorg — now global in home-based nursing; Nucor Steel (in Gary Hamel and Michele Zanini’s awesome work Humanocracy) Jaipur Rugs and Beetroot (Digital) as some shining examples of growing, strong self-managed organisations.

Carne Ross — a former UK Government diplomat — started advocating for more anarchic systems and showcased some great examples where there were leaderless, self-managed systems in his book “The Leaderless Revolution”. Featured in the Guardian, it was just as the world started leaning towards more right-wing autocratic politics. So it got somewhat lost in the melee of the rise of the opposite of self-management: Dictatorships.

Now that the COVID-19 shockwave has somewhat upturned most viewpoints on the world, we’ve had to discover some strong governmental intervention but also a heap of sleaze. And during that time, we’ve also discovered our agency, intentions and distrust of the systems that were there before.

We’ve moved from chaos to complexity and there we sit. And will sit for some time. Clear/simple and even complicated (predictable responses in predictable systems) are not likely to emerge quickly if at all. And be transient periods of stability before the next convulsion.

And in the places of turbulence and shockwave ripples, we see the need for more activism. Hence the rise of said employee activism featured by the excellent Megan Reitz and more.

Michael Y. Lee and Amy Edmondson have researched the areas of hierarchy and self-management (admittedly pre-pandemic) and called for more application of non-hierarchical approaches in times of instability. Professor Henry Mintzberg — famed for his 9 Principles of very orderly approaches to Organisation Design — also called out hierarchies usefulness at times of stability but how difficult they can make things in responding to those shockwaves and instability.

So we know it. Self-managed systems CAN be enduring but get a big challenge from autocrats and dominant, ego-led leaders. Because all the alluring things they are there for in leadership — control, privilege, power — are lost in a self-managed system.

They’re vehemently anti-heterarchical.

So is it worth pursuing advocacy, experiments and application of self-managed systems? Or should we admit they’ll always be interesting and even slightly romanticised notions of organisational life and even the most ardent heterarchical self-managed startup, will eventually become a hierarchically controlled entity.

The person who introduced me to heterarchies was the acclaimed Fons Trompenaars. He also introduced me to his 4 quadrants model for organisational culture, growth and scale.

Artistically represented here by Hayley Lewis

Hayley Lewis Sketchnote of Fons Trompenaars Riding the Waves of Culture Quadrants

ALL organisations (in part and in whole) probably go through this.

  • Incubation (startup — does well so it becomes like a)
  • Family (with roles and some degrees of ranking but can still be flat with no dominant force. And then as that scales it might become a)
  • Guided Missile (with more systems and performance measures to optimise on the now scale where it’s difficult to know everyone and be over everything to then becoming a)
  • Monument — Eiffel Tower (a temple and symbol of glory and stature with a fixed and logical construct).

Trompenaars (I recall him saying) advocates that organisations once they reach Eiffel Tower-status, should re-incubate some or all of their processes, products and ways of being to go through the cycle again and not become a dominant, lumbering beast that either becomes a soulless living museum or a dangerously arrogant giant to be toppled by growing incumbents.

Now this theory is where I can answer your “what’s the point in this post?”

Point 1.

Heterarchies bring people closer to the core, source and meaning of your enterprise. Not having layers of bureaucrats and leaders creating interference, it’s the cleanest and most clear way to connect to that powerful source of meaning.

Point 2.

Heterarchies can (per the definition from Wikipedia) exist within hierarchical systems. So creating a heterarchical Function (like L’Oreal’s Global Marketing Teams are within a large hierarchy) can exist inside a more formalised pyramidal structure. So if you think you have to change the entire system to be a self-managed heterarchy, think again. You may need to create a bit of a protective forcefield around you though. Those who are strongly wedded to the hierarchy may see your heterarchical move as threatening their position should the “vibe” permeate outside of your domain into theirs.

Point 3.

You can still have situational hierarchical set-ups — leading roles on some of your functions and processes. We’ve created this at People and Transformational HR Ltd. with our Stacks Operating Model. People who lead on — say Partnerships or Sustainability — but who don’t have dominant power over people. They lead the Stack and what’s in it — not people.

PTHR’s Stacks Operating Model

Point 4.

Self-managed and heterarchical systems build closer more collaborative bonds between people who find a way to get on and strike up more supportive relationships with each other.

Point 5.

If your heterarchy scales, then what? Well, as you get to be a guided missile before you hit the rarified air of a monument, reincubate. Spin-out, split up. Experiment. Run a networked ecosystem, not a giant wannabe corporate behemoth.

All this has also been covered by the excellent Jon Husband and his super-smartly defined Wirearchy.

CC Jon Husband and others.

So do we need to see a self-management and therefore heterarchical revolution?

Yes.

But if that’s too big an ask for us with so many people holding onto hierarchies for their own gains, that’s a tough ask.

Instead, let’s see a heterarchical evolution.

One team at a time. You can start.

Or you can climb the hierarchy. In the latter, lies potential financial gains, power, ego-stroking and more.

In the heterarchy lies belonging, meaning, purpose, human connections.

It’s your call. No-ones stopping you from creating a system within a system.

Be more heterarchical. I’d love you to.

CEO PTHR |2x TEDx speaker | Author: Transformational HR + The Energized Workplace | HR Most Influential Thinker 2017-2019 | Soulboy + Northampton Town fan