The people problem: 2 – Hierarchy vs network

10 more thoughts for an imaginary essay entitled: Getting to Agile: The ‘People’ Dimension.

  1. Apart from the change from employees to professionals, Agile’s other critical ‘people’ transformation is the change from hierarchy to network.
  2. A hierarchy is a vertically structured social system. It works from top to bottom. A network is structured horizontally – it works from side to side. This is the basic change in organisation in Agile: a world of hierarchies is transformed into a world of networks.
  3. In a hierarchy, authority is static, based on position & is defined by the system’s rules for command and control. With few exceptions, authority proceeds from top to bottom.
  4. In a network, authority is based on ability & opportunity, & is constantly moving to where it is needed to achieve the network’s goals.
  5. A hierarchy forbids individual members to use their capabilities except insofar as they comply with the system’s predefined definition of authority. A network strives to mobilise all capabilities that can contribute to success.
  6. A network is inherently fluid: it operates by communication & influence, and has no fixed or impermeable boundaries. A hierarchy is inherently rigid, operating by formalities, with fixed and impermeable boundaries both within and between systems.
  7. A key element of networks is the ability to cooperate. A self-organising, mutually adapting network of networks is the natural outcome. This creates minimal resistance because networks concede only as much autonomy both sides think necessary to collaborate.
  8. A hierarchy, by contrast, can only adapt to another hierarchy by forcefully imposing its own rules upon the other system.
  9. In terms of employees & professionals, a hierarchy tells its members what to do, whereas a network asks its members what to do. In that respect, hierarchies are designed for employees (and vice versa) while networks are designed for professionals.
  10. The basic challenge this offers to organisations is not whether or not Agile ‘works’ but whether filling your organisation with local Agile networks is compatible with retaining hierarchical, command-and-control systems, organisation & management.

About the Author:

Chief Architect, Agile201.com.

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