flashback friday: why hierarchies? the pizza and beer syndrome

[this was my most popular post of 2012. enjoy!]

Why do organizations look the way they do? Why are command and control hierarchies so popular? They seem like relics from days gone past. We spend a lot of time complaining about all their sins and proposing alternatives so why don’t we see flatter, collaborative, and self-directed organizations? They should be more adaptable, create more engagement, and be higher performing. Yet we keep perpetuating the command and control hierarchies that we spend so much time railing against. Why do we say we want one thing and make the choices and actions that lead to another?

Good questions and here’s the answer (you might want to write this down):pizza and beer.

No, really. Call it the “Pizza and Beer Syndrome” if you like. We can learn a lot about organizations by looking at human behavior. After all, organizations are a reflection of the philosophies, strategies, and approaches of individuals.

As much as we might wish otherwise, us humans are pretty good at choosing what’s easy and pleasurable over what’s best. Consider what most people choose when given the long-term, day after day after day choice between:

1. Eating super lean and healthy, drinking only water, exercising vigorously every day, having regular tests and check-ups at the doctor’s office, getting the proper amount of sleep, etc.

OR

2. Staying up too late, sitting on the couch, watching movies, and eating pizza and drinking beer.

It doesn’t take a 10-year study or deep statistical analysis  to figure out what most people choose. Look around: people are getting heavier by the day. That’s the Pizza and Beer Syndrome: we know what we need to do to create the results we want yet we choose the opposite. When given the choice we tend to choose easy and good enough over best; the ok over the exceptional (Yes, there are exceptions. Yes, you’re a superstar. Keep it up. I’m talking about the other 95%.)

Oh man, that answer chafes. I hate that answer. But when it comes down to it, we can argue all day why open, flatter, collaborative, and self-directed approaches are better. We can loudly proclaim that we hate hierarchies and we want – must have – flat, collaborative, and self-directed organizations. Then we choose hierarchies. Perhaps because hierarchies are easy and good enough rather than the best. Consider:

1. Command and control hierarchies work ok across a wide range of situations.

2. Effectively creating open, flat, collaborative, and self-directed organizations is really, really hard.

3. Us humans like to stick with what we know works, even in situations when what we know doesn’t really work.

Wait a minute. Am I actually saying that command and control hierarchies are the best solution? Nope. I don’t think they are any more than I think pizza and beer are the cornerstone of a high performance diet. I’m saying that to most people, in most situations, hierarchies are good enough compared to the effort required to create and maintain a flatter organization. I personally prefer the open, self-directed organizations, but I get why companies are slow (resistant?) to adopt a different structure. Let’s take a look at these three reasons in a bit more detail.

1. Command and control hierarchies work ok across a wide range of situations.

We want and seek the one universally perfect solution, but it doesn’t exist. Different situations and problems call for different answers and solutions. All organizational structures have their advantages and disadvantages and, like it or not, hierarchies are a valid option. Hierarchies have limitations, yet can (and do) work.

Hierarchies have a built-in organization and structure that is easy to set up and understand: do what your boss says and tell your employees what to do. Simple. This simplicity makes hierarchical structures robust and durable in most situations. They may not always be the best answer, but tend to work good enough. Hierarchies are very tolerant of dysfunctional culture, poor leadership and disengaged employees (truly – just look around).

Also, I suspect that most of the complaints about hierarchies are more about lousy companies than the organizational structure. Quick question: when we look at the alternatives, would you rather work in a hierarchy with great leadership and top notch peers or a flat, collaborative organization with dysfunctional relationships, mutually exclusive and competing goals, no feedback, and no support? A poor idea done well is often superior to a great idea done poorly.

 

2. Effectively creating and maintaining an open, flat, collaborative, and self-directed organization is really, really hard.

Creating and maintaining open, self-directed organizations is difficult. Hierarchies are a known model. We know how they work and how to think about them. Effectively using alternative structures requires thinking about leadership, direction, structure, and work differently and playing by a different set of rules. That’s not a bad thing, but it is more challenging.

Whereas a hierarchy will survive dysfunction with little effort needed to maintain the structure an open organization requires much, much more of the leadership, people, culture. It also requires diligent and ongoing maintenance.

Valve is a software company that caught several bloggers attention when its employee handbook surfaced a little while back. I discussed it here, but the gist is that it is a completely flat and collaborative organization. How collaborative? Check out their current job openings and you’ll see one of the options is: “Have a better idea?” Asking candidates to suggest a new job doesn’t work in a check-the-box organization with a rigid structure and top-down-the-boss-is-always-right management. Read their employee handbook and you’ll either get excited by the possibilities it suggests or completely freak out and declare it an impossibility.

To go flat is hard because it creates ambiguity. It requires people who are self-managing and self-driven AND who are able to work with others, accepting of different perspectives and styles, and willing to design the future instead of waiting for the boss to define it for them. In my experience that’s a relatively scarce combination. There are a lot of exceptional people out there who would not do well in that kind of environment.

Also, I hate to say it, but I suspect that the average person would prefer a hierarchy if given the choice. Going flatter requires more individual responsibility and results focus while hierarchies often allow individuals to give up their personal responsibility and let others direct and control them. Many (most?) people don’t like or want responsibility, are not driven, and just want to do a consistent and certain job and then go home. They want to know EXACTLY what is expected, do it, and get on with their lives. They want a clear, visible career path and routine (mundane) expectations. It sounds like a private hell to me, BUT it is a common attitude. Flatten an organization containing a large number of those folks and you’ll see frustration, mayhem, and chaos. Or maybe just bewilderment and complete inaction as they sit down and wait for someone to tell them what to do.

Likewise, a flat organization creates places additional demands on leadership. It requires people who can lead but don’t want or need the glory, status, and control that is so natural in a hierarchy. It requires more influence and less command and control. Someone who can and wants to lead and influence others without making it about themselves is a rarity. Collaborative and self-directed requires giving up a lot of certainty and control for the possibilities that the group can create. That’s far beyond scary for many, many people. They’ll stick with the known, thank you very much.

Further, we just don’t do a good job training people to be collaborative and self-directed, to thrive in ambiguity, give and receive feedback, to be autonomous and self-directed, etc. We don’t yet develop the skills required to move away from hierarchies. That doesn’t mean we can’t, just that it’s one more step.

So a flat organization requires exceptional people, leaders who think bigger than themselves, and an organizational tolerance for ambiguity. We can forget bureaucratic box checking and that right there will prevent many HR groups from ever getting behind changing the organization. Easy and good enough trounces best. Known evil is welcomed over unfamiliar good.

 

3. Us humans like to stick with what we know works, even in situations when what we know doesn’t really work.

We have very few examples and role models of flat, collaborate, etc. organizations and there is tremendous comfort and safety in doing something the way everyone else does it – even when it’s not the best way. There’s the old trader’s saying: “No one ever got fired for buying IBM.” It may not be the best possible choice, but it gets the job done and no one will fault you for sticking with the tried and true even when it underperforms. They will, however, dismiss the unconventional success as a fluke and absolutely nail you to the wall for trying something unusual if it doesn’t work out. Better to fail with the known than risk success with the unknown.

Also, thinking back to pizza and beer, when faced with a change that requires effort, discipline, and a different way of doing things, we tend to quit when it gets difficult OR we go back to our old habits after initial success. For example, a new exercise and diet program is painful and we often give up before we start seeing results OR we lose some weight but then slack on the discipline and drift back toward our old habits.

*           *           *

In many ways, I think that the majority of folks ultimately want hierarchies. Sure, we say we don’t. We gripe and complain about them. But it’s like diet and exercise. We say we don’t want to be overweight and out of shape. We complain and talk about alternatives. But, we don’t make the choices and take the actions that would create a different outcome. Flatter orgs, like being in shape, appear to require higher levels of commitment, diligence, and discipline. AND, I suspect that, like being in shape, the perceived benefits far exceed the perceived cost of the effort required.

That said, the difficulty in getting it right leads me to believe that those organizations that do get it figured out have a distinct and difficult to copy advantage. If you truly want to win, if you’re willing to risk being different to be the best, take note. If you’re ok with the status quo then carry on.

The Pizza and Beer Syndrome. We know what we need to do to create the results we want yet we choose the opposite. Sure, I’ll exercise in the morning. Or maybe tomorrow afternoon. Wonder what’s on TV tonight?

 

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2 comments

  1. Bizarre timing… I’ve just been pondering flatter org. hierarchies as I made my first mug of coffee of the day and sat down to read this!

    I was thinking how the argument for flatter hierarchies relates to our view of capital cities. Surely if the world of organisations becomes flatter we could conceive of this spreading further afield. Could we conceive of multiple capital cities and not the current system with a hierarchy of 1? It’s an idea but it’s not gonna happen is it…

    Hierarchies are not all bad – each family unit is a hierarchy of sorts and works well for it’s purpose. Should we advocate flatter family structures?

    So I suspect it comes down to what we want & need. Is it right for us? Does it give an advantage? What do we lose/gain?

    I love the analogy of Pizza & Beer, not to say it’s an unhealthy choice, more to say it’s right for some occasions and is unhealthy when taken to extremes. Just like hierarchies I think!

    Like

    1. It does take a lot of effort to time my blogs with what people are thinking about, but I think it’s one of those nice little touches that sets me apart. 🙂

      You bring up a really good point ~ there are advantages and disadvantages to every organizational structure. I suspect the key in the future-now of work is consciously and intentionally weighing the benefits of each potential option against the costs vs accepting hierarchies as the only valid choice.

      Hierarchies seem to work best when knowledge and information and communication is scarce and concentrated and the need for debate and multiple perspectives is limited or even counterproductive. They also do a good job of defining status and shifting responsibility. Those needs still exist, but perhaps not as much as we try to tell ourselves they do.

      Like

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