Is hierarchy necessary?

One well-known company doesn’t think so.  According to Cnet, Zappos will, by the end of 2014, eliminate “all job titles and managers in a corporate structure, leaving nearly every employee on equal footing.” Quoting the news site Quartz

Zappos is going all-in on the system and will create approximately 400 “circles” made up of a group of employees that will be tasked with projects. The group must work together — sans hierarchy — to do their jobs.

This is fascinating. A couple of observations;

  • The system isn’t totally without hierarchy — somebody is doing the tasking. Note the “nearly every employee.”
  • It will be interesting to see if new hierarchies form within the circles, and what mechanism they evolve to form and un-form circles.
  • The Danish hearing device company Oticon has been experimenting with similar ideas since the late 1980s.
  • Boyd didn’t say anything about how to organize a military unit or a business. He once told me that he had a preference for “bottom up” because such an orientation fostered initiative and creativity. On the other hand, if you look at his description of mission (Patterns 76), it’s clear that he was thinking in terms of hierarchies.

We should pay close attention to Zappos’s experiment and, of course,wish them the best.

6 thoughts on “Is hierarchy necessary?

  1. Chet, have you ever heard of the computer software company Valve, and how they run their business?

    That may prove to be an interesting case study for whether or not hierarchy is needed or not. Granted, Valve’s core business is currently growing at an exponential pace (still immature industry), but it is still an interesting case study to look at.

    Also from your post:
    “Boyd didn’t say anything about how to organize a military unit or a business. He once told me that he had a preference for “bottom up” because such an orientation fostered initiative and creativity.”

    Thinking this through, does he mean by a reverse hierarchy? Where the top is the support role that provides the resources and the bottom of the hierarchy makes the majority of the decisions? Such a system would convey certain advantages, such as the decision makers being on the ground, a faster OODA loop (easier to get things done), better communication among subordinates, and so on.

    Of course, all of this goes against traditional corporate thinking. I wonder though if this means that in the future, existing corporations will be disrupted in this manner …

    • Hi altandmain,

      Thanks for the info on Valve. Could you share more information on them?

      Interesting question about a reverse hierarchy. Boyd had a military background and firmly believed in leadership from the top. In concrete terms, this means that leaders have the responsibility for determining what needs to be accomplished and for building an organization capable of accomplishing it. As commander’s intent flows down, people within the organization use their creativity and initiative to make it happen, even as circumstances change. So the tempo of action is always faster at the bottom, as you suggest. However, in the sense of using their minds, OODA speeds should be flat out at all levels.

      • Hello Chet,

        Valve is a software, primarily computer gaming company, and they operate Steam, which has become a popular online software store. They’ve deviated substantially from the typical corporate environment in that the individual employee is to dictate for themselves what they think needs to be done, rather than a boss ordering them around. Equally important, they have their own employees dictate hiring rather than to have the traditional HR system.

        The best way to learn about them may very well be to read their handbook:
        http://assets.sbnation.com/assets/1074301/Valve_Handbook_LowRes.pdf

        The other interesting thing about Valve is what is known as “Valve time”. It’s very difficult to forecast how long making software will take, and as such, Valve often delays it’s releases of new software. They do this because rather than release incomplete or buggy software, they would prefer to release software in a great state.

        Regarding John Boyd:

        “Boyd had a military background and firmly believed in leadership from the top. …

        So the tempo of action is always faster at the bottom, as you suggest. However, in the sense of using their minds, OODA speeds should be flat out at all levels.”

        In this regard, Boyd’s view is somewhat more traditional, but it does give substantially more empowerment to the subordinates than in most armies or a typical corporate environment today – in other words, consistent with what might be described as a Third Generation military, versus a Second Generation more obedience-centric, firepower-is-king mentality.

        Perhaps taking this forward, a Fourth Generation “army” (if it can even be called an army), would be one without ranks, namely one where:

        – There would be little to no ranks (ex: there would not be say, private, corporal, captain, etc)
        – No one would give orders in a sense, all soldiers would be in loose teams and those teams would then orient themselves based on the needs of the army
        – There would be nobody to order those teams around
        – Individuals within each team could leave the team to join another based on how they felt they could add the most contribution to the army
        – This would also work in the navy as well – individuals would go to ships or dockyards or shore-based offices that needed manpower based on their observations
        – Teams could vary in size depending on the role of the team
        – Teams would only have a temporary leader (since there’s no ranks); imagine a ship for example in this army’s navy having a “temporary captain”
        – Very flat organization, where a handful of people at the top may roughly direct where they want the organization to go, but everyone underneath executes (including the people at the top)
        – Those at the top are not dictators, they will quickly change direction as needed and will frequently consult with people below
        – Very loose “internal controls” in a sense
        – There could be over time high levels of specialization, but people would dictate to themselves what they should specialize in
        – Everyone is a recruiter and they recruit based on the needs, based on the people they know, and based on the capabilities of the people recruiting

        Would that be a viable military strategy? More interestingly, could this type of military outperform a similarly sized Third Generation force? Finally, is a state owned, conventional (as in fights with tanks, fighter aircraft, etc) armed force even a Fourth Generation force? An interesting question.

        I think though it’s unlikely we will ever have the opportunity to find out. Armed forces today are very conservative organizations. Let me give an example. I suspect that it would take anybody who wanted to a trip to “hell and back”, so to speak, to convert the US Armed Forces from say, the Second Generation force that it is to a Third Generation force, let alone allowing it to experiment with a Fourth Generation force.

        Regards,
        – Chris

      • Chris,

        Thanks very much!! I really like the organizational scheme you described.

        You suggested that “In this regard, Boyd’s view is somewhat more traditional.” This is a valid observation. Boyd, in fact, read drafts of Lind, et al.’s paper that coined the term “fourth generation warfare,” but never adopted the term himself. For that matter, he didn’t use “third generation warfare” and didn’t write “maneuver warfare” in any of his presentations.

        My problem with the concept of a fourth generation force is a little different. You asked “More interestingly, could this type of military outperform a similarly sized Third Generation force?” The question would be “outperform at what?” Most people writing about 4GW don’t envision such forces confronting 3rd (or even 2nd) generation forces on battlefields. As Lind and Hammes have suggested, 4GW forces attempt to bypass enemy armed forces and directly influence enemy populations to quit supporting the conflict. As Hammes concluded about Nicaragua, if your armed forces lose in the right way, this can drum up support for your cause among the population.

        Well, if the enemy population chooses not to support the war effort for whatever reason, is it still war? If I change my mind and accept your argument, did you defeat me, or did you convince me?

        So it seems to me that what you are proposing is a better or at least an alternative, design for a force capable of conducting what Boyd called guerrilla or blitzkrieg warfare (or in a business setting, perhaps operating under a philosophy similar to the Toyota Way). Note that in his scheme, guerrilla warfare and blitzkrieg warfare can be thought of as manifestations of the same underlying phenomenon, with the differences depending on whether one is trying to bring down an adversary from the outside (blitzkrieg) or inside (guerrilla warfare) and on whether one’s emphasis is on maneuver conflict or moral conflict. See, for example, Patterns, pp. 98-101 and the “Categories of Conflict” section that starts on p.110.

      • Hi Chet,

        The idea behind such an organization would be this:

        1. A problem emerges.

        2. People inside discuss whether it’s a problem at all with the top.

        3. Everyone discusses together what the best solution might be.

        4. The top eventually does reach a conclusion on how to execute the solution based on the best available data and the feedback received.

        5. A general idea of how to solve the problem is given.

        6. What each individual person’s role within an organization and whether or not they even have a role in that problem is up to that individual.

        7. People assign themselves to the role that best fits their abilities.

        8. If there are too many people assigned to a given problem, people will leave where appropriate to see where else in the organization can they make the best use of their talents and the most contribution. If there are more resources needed, existing people will ask for help.

        9. Critical thinking will be encouraged. People will always ask the “why” question. There will also be frequent discussion of “tell me why you think this is the best solution to the problem over the alternatives”. This will ensure that if 5 gave the wrong solution, a change of course can be made before too long.

        10. People will change roles depending on how they see they can best solve the problem. Also ranks are a non-issue. There may be “temporary leaders” but they are “temporary” for the duration of the problem or part of the problem. Also, there may even be times when the senior leaders are themselves subordinate to certain people “temporarily”. (Also useful because it lets those in charge get a real feeling for the “on the ground” situation.)

        11. Once the problem is solved, everyone should be asked what went right, what went wrong, and how the problem should be approached in the future. The bigger the problem and the more resources committed, the more time should be spent reflecting.

        In other words, there’s no low level people, no mid-level management ordering the low level people, and no higher end people. There is also a great deal more transparency as well.

        Of course, for such a thing to happen, it would need very high transparency, considerable trust in everyone in the group, and of course, talented people who are also good thinkers.

        “My problem with the concept of a fourth generation force is a little different.”

        There seems to be some disagreement with what constitutes a Fourth Generation force. I would argue the same thing about Third Generation too.

        Third Generation:
        Official idea – tanks. Hence, I think the US (and the Western world) have opted to make heavy tanks like the M1 Abrams.

        Real idea – people, ideas, moral warfare. This in turn led to the ability to bypass the enemy to attack their rear (which is really what if you think about it, the Germans accomplished in the Battle of France, not a massive tank vs tank battle).

        Fourth Generation:
        Official idea – Guerrilla warfare and nothing more.

        Real idea – again, moral warfare, but trumping all else this time. And yes, as you’ve noted the idea of trumping an army to attack the civilian rear.

        So in that regard, yes, I suppose then my first comment would be a Third Generation force, although with more “Third Generation aspects” than any army today.

        “As Hammes concluded about Nicaragua, if your armed forces lose in the right way, this can drum up support for your cause among the population.”

        So in other words, who fights, what motivates them to do so, and what do they bring to the conflict? Those are the key questions.

        It could be argued that Pearl Harbor was such a “loss” for the US in a sense – it led to the moral outrage which led to a nation that embraced a relatively isolationist policy into a much more militaristic and aggressive policy.

        “Well, if the enemy population chooses not to support the war effort for whatever reason, is it still war? If I change my mind and accept your argument, did you defeat me, or did you convince me?”

        Technically it is war so long as there is some degree of resistance (ex: an unpopular government that continues the fight regardless). Now the wisdom of that government prolonging the war is open to debate. After all, the moral does trump the physical.

        Now was that nation defeated? Or persuaded? I would argue that it’s an ideological defeat, but physically, things are unchanged. A physical defeat implies that one side has experienced a military defeat, at least traditionally. Yet the moral does trump the physical. It’s similar to a situation where one side could potentially win every “battle” and many tactical victories, but still lose the war due to strategic/moral defeat.

        That said, let’s say there’s a stalemate or even that the side that has been “persuaded” is arguing from a position of strength. Were they defeated? Assuming they negotiated, they may very well exit the conflict from a relatively favorable position.

        You’ve given me a lot to ponder about. I will revisit Boyd’s Patterns again.

        Regards,

        Chris

  2. The Next Big Thing You Missed: Companies That Work Better Without Bosses
    http://www.wired.com/business/2014/01/holacracy-at-zappos/

    In briefings Boyd would say that the military went to a rigid, top-down, command&control structure for WW2 to field larges numbers with no experience and to leverage the few skills available. He also highlighted that required 11% officers (to support the rigid, top-down command&control structure) growing to 20% (compared to 3% for Germany). He would observe that US corporate culture was starting to be contaminated as those former military officers started to climb corporate ladders. Note however, this was in a period when articles were starting to appear that blamed the problem on the rise of MBAs and the myopic focus on quarterly numbers.

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