Push Hierarchy? Pull Hierarchy? Holacracy? Holarchy? Heterarchy? Wirearchy?

Each of these models (or concepts) have their purpose and place, and to a significant degree which one will be most effective will depend upon how an organization wants to respond to the fundamental issues of flexibility, agility, responsiveness, execution and forward stability.  And it is also important to pay attention to and understand the primary “nature of work” any given organization carries out.

Let’s explore them a bit.

But first I’d like to thank Deb Lavoy for mentioning the emergent organizing principle wirearchy in her March 2014 CMSWire piece titled « Is Collaboration Limited By Organisational Structure ?».

I’d also like to add to the general discussion floating through the web these days concerning new organizational forms, the methods being advocated to create and enable those forms, and the suggestion that wirearchy is mainly idealistic as opposed to practical and workable.

To set the context, a couple of things need to be set out as basic assumptions with which to anchor the subsequent logic.

Deb’s article sets out 4 organizational structures as intended « states-of-being »:

– Push hierarchies

– Pull hierarchies

– Holacracies

– Wirearchies

 One of the unstated but operative assumptions here is that each is a model, and thus a stable state of organization underpinned by a prescriptive approach. That is the case with both Push and Pull Hierarchies and with Holacracies.

But in my opinion that is not the case with the notion of wirearchy.

Since Day One of banging on about the concept of wirearchy, I have steadfastly resisted attempts to designate or describe it as a prescriptive method or solution. It is posited as an organizing principle for networked activity. There’s a reason for that stance. Principles are different than prescribed approaches or recipes. In the sense I intended, it should be used as a design principle and referred to as such.

Many knowledgeable pundits have noted that in today’s and tomorrow’s more rapid, more turbulent and more complex environment (today’s shorthand is VUCA – volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous), there is not likely to be one right answer, one correct and more effective way .. or at least not a prescriptive and easily replicable method. By the way, Roger Martin, ex-dean of the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Business and current head of the school’s Martin Prosperity Institute does not like or agree with the notion of VUCA, though I consider his disagreement a result of a narrow interpretation (in the context of the issues he is discussing in the article “Adaptive Strategy Is a Cop-out”).

That we are in an era in which there is very likely no one homogenous or more-correct method is pertinent to the argument I make later on in this essay.  It does not mean in any way that using wirearchy as a design principle does not have practical application (more on that later)

 Push and Pull Hierarchies

I’d like to point out up front that hierarchy is an organizing principle. But specific to the context of organizations ‘hierarchy’ has come to mean a clearly codified approach to arranging power, control and work .. the design, challenges and outputs .. according to a focused set of methods derived from Taylorism and Fordism. Applicable domain knowledge is assumed to be of increasing power and utility when arranged vertically, more useful and pertinent and powerful from the top on down. The combination of this assumption with another core assumption about divisions of labour and specialization has been codified since the early 1950′ s and refined into methods that generate the pyramidal hierarchical organization (the org chart) with which we are all familiar.

Further, each of the methods used to create organizational hierarchies are essentially the same. Having worked with most of them I can assert authoritatively that the only variations are the names of the proprietary methods and the wording of the semantic scales each method contains.  And the variations are only minor. The approaches and methods are in effect paraphrased versions of each other.

Thus .. the classic Push Hierarchy depends upon core assumptions derived directly from Taylor and Ford, and when these assumptions are enacted in work and organizational design the result is the classic traditional hierarchy and its attendant representation (org chart) and dynamics of power and political manipulation.

Holacracy ®

Holacracy is an approach which purports to offer a prescriptive solution to the turbulence and ambiguity of today’s networked conditions. It combines the words ‘holarchy’ and the word ‘autocracy’ in a packaging-together of some of the aspects of Elliott Jaques’ Requisite Organization Theory (underpinned by his Theory of the Time-Span of Discretion) with some core practices derived from the socio-technical systems / OD world, primarily elements of self-directed and self-managed teamwork dynamics. The organization’s activities are in effect directed by a constitution with which all workers must align (the infamous « the boat is leaving the dock, you’re either on board the boat or you’re not » approach to organizational change used whenever a new strategy or a vision and mission are introduced).

I think the growing awareness of and popularity of Holacracy is a step in the right direction, in that it seeks to simplify rigid organizational structures in areas where it actually matters a lot (where most of the work gets done). And holacracy has the advantage of starting from the point of seeking alignment with the organization’s vision and mission through its focus on the constitution as the directive force.

It is useful to note that Holacracy has come to many peoples’ awareness through the publicity afforded the approach via its adoption by Zappos, an Amazon company.

And, it’s important to note here that relatively few people thus far have questioned the applicability of such an approach across a wide spectrum of what is know in organization effectiveness circles as « the nature of the work » (in other words, a retail organization is very different than a manufacturing organization, and a services organization is a different beast again, as is a research and knowledge-creating organization, etc.

It’s also pertinent to wonder how Jaques’ Theory of the Time-Span of Discretion will hold up in a fast-moving networked environment of constant information flows. The horizon or time-span of decision-making involves paying attention to future coming-over-the-horizon signals and sussing out what’s coming next.

There’s an interesting issue here. Today’s conditions are vastly different than in the 60’s and 70’s when Jaques was developing the theory for (mainly) manufacturing and stable service organizations.  Given the forms of networks and flows of information in which we live and work today, it is an open question as to how well the theory works when faced with the need for drastic change or deep flexibility. In many cases senior people at the top of an organization, those with supposedly longer over-the horizon time spans of discretion, are in today’s conditions more detached and further from the flows of information and conversation that frame the pulse of their market ecosystem, the early detection of the signals that can inform the next decisions usefully.

Indeed, at least conceptually, one can argue that the networked communities of workers in the lower strata of an organization .. those in contact with customers and the daily lives of ordinary people .. are better able to look “farther out” than the higher-level CEO’s and execs, even if it is only by intuition. The top levels of people in large organization are as a generality too busy and too isolated to be able to get a good sense or a good read on « what’s going on out there ». Thus, it’s my sense that with hyperlinked and networked information flows and rapid changeability (conditions resembling the complex & chaotic quadrants in the Cynefin framework), the notion of the “time-span of discretion” loses an important element of relevance. In simpler terms .. the lower-downs sometimes know and understand a lot more about the dynamics, and directions, of the information flows ?

As my friend and colleague Anne Marie McEwan, founder of The Smart Work Company consultancy, states “the key thing about social technologies is that they are adopted and deployed at will and without permissions (my addition .. this is not quite the case in most organizations today, though the notion of BYOD refuses to go away or die). So it is reasonable to hypothesise that main benefit to organisations is  –  paradoxically – recognising the creative power of shadow systems and encouraging them, without interfering. This is also so diametrically opposed to dominant management control tendencies.”

In a follow-up note to her review of this essay Anne-Marie rightly notes (and adds oomph to the argument) that ..

“The second influencing factor is connectivity to customers – who are now increasingly integral to business processes (not recipients of what’s on offer).

Finally, my point about people adopting social techs without permission is more pertinent than you might appreciate. This is people acting within ‘shadow’ systems of self-determined action – Stowe Boyd’s graphic image of sharpening our own shovels. Savvy businesses will appreciate and encourage this self-determined innovation.”

A recent Fast Company article titled “This Is Generation Flux: Meet the Pioneers of the New (and Chaotic) Frontier of Business” also provides meat for the bones of the points outlined above .. The business climate, it turns out, is a lot like the weather. And we’ve entered a next-two-hours era. The pace of change in our economy and our culture is accelerating–fueled by global adoption of social, mobile, and other new technologies–and our visibility about the future is declining.”

But I hope more organizations start using the holocratic approach and that we all learn more and become wiser for its adoption and use.

Wirearchy – applicability and practicality

Given the assertions and context outlined above, let’s look at the practicality and workability of the concept of wirearchy.

First, I’d like to return to my assertion that it should be used as a design principle and not as a prescriptive approach. Today’s networked world has created conditions wherein each organization’s context and operative challenges are much more differentiated than before, even with respect to the closest of competitors in a specific industry. We need only witness the rise and subsequent decline of the notion of Best Practices as a key piece of evidence.

I strongly believe there is no longer « one size (or method) fits all ». We are well and truly into the age of mass customization and what works for one organization and it’s set(s) of customers, talents, management and resources is not at all necessarily what will work for another.

I think that argument holds even if and when two organizations are in the same industry and of similar size and scope. Unless highly automated and with algorithms underpinning the key operational processes, the combinations and permutations of people using interconnectivity and social computing tools and platforms capabilties to digest, filter, process and pass along pertinent information promises ongoing complexity.

This complexity means responses to stimuli and local, regional or national conditions can change direction or focus quite quickly. Patterns of activity and the recognizable forms they take are much more dynamic than ever before, and can be discerned and better understood by using emergent sense-making approaches such as the Cynefin framework (Dave Snowden).

Screen Shot 2014-03-07 at 17.10.55

In discussing the interpretation of wirearchy, I’d also like to add some comments about comparisons and contrasts that have been made with respect to to other “archy” words that have been discussed more frequently now than in the past – holarchy and heterarchy.

Holarchy is essentially a set of nested hierarchies, and is (as argued above) the other concept supporting Holacracy® that has been woven together with Jaques’ Requisite Organization theory. Holarchy suggests that the set of nested hierarchies makes up a whole (system) or a holon. Holacracy the term I believe is a synthesis of holarchy and autocracy, but I will be glad to be corrected and thus learn more.

Heterarchy as defined by wikipedia is .. ” 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.

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.”

To my mind the concept of heterarchy implies a relative degree of stability or permanence, or a ‘right’ configuration (as opposed to ongoing adaptation). It’s a model or framework of multiple and various-sized hierarchies depending upon the focus, scope and scale of the initiative(s) under consideration.

Personally I prefer thinking that the concept of heterarchy is more applicable than holarchy + autocracy (holacracy) to the conditions and patterns of organizing we are beginning to see emerging. But/and, I’d like to offer here my thinking about why I still prefer the working definition of wirearchy to the clearly-pertinent concept of heterarchy.

« Wirearchy – a dynamic two-way flow of power and authority based on knowledge, trust, credibility and a focus on results, enabled by interconnected people and technology »

Thus far I am struck by two or three key points of differentiation. I believe the working definition allows for a more full, fluid and practical interpretation of the actual conditions and responses we are witnessing as hyperlinks, search capabilities, curation, collaboration and communities of exploration and productivity form around issues, problems and objectives. The fluidity and constant and often turbulent changes of today’s (and tomorrow’s) conditions also suggest strongly to me that organization will be much more temporary, and thus flow from one arrangement to the next.

Oh, and before people go all management-y on me and my thoughts and splutter “well, what about control, high-performance, lazy people, distraction, etc.” .. pull yourself together and review the large amount of research, literature and growing number of examples where people-on-purpose identify and commit to aligned-to-vision goals and objectives, carry out many aspects of self-direction and self-management, engage with a group’s raison d’être and objectives and get. shit. done.

There are many tools and techniques that have been used in organizations and by teams the world over that give the lie to adults not being able to work at high-performance levels for months and years.  Many of the examples have often been cited over the past three years during the numerous discussion about cultural and management issues stemming from the notions of Enterprise 2.0 and social business and related concepts.  And, if you’re really anxious to know more about, let’s sit down and hammer out a contract and I’l pull together a report full of tools, technique, guidelines and examples.  But not for free.

So, fthe concept of wirearchy has been crafted to fit the ongoing emerging patterns of information flows, work streams and the groupings of skills and personalities that form around the work at hand. I also believe it ‘scales’ to a meta-level whereby we witness the increasingly two-way flow of power and authority between citizens / consumers and governments / enterprises (as suggested by the emergence of a 4th form of power and authority represented in the following graphic image by my colleague Michel Cartier.

Screen Shot 2014-06-01 at 18.24.28

One thing I think is certain. To address the ongoing massive changes to organizing peoples’ attention and efforts, we will need master architects and tailors, not mechanics, to help with the work of designing and implementing the structures of effective organizations.


  • Chris Cowan

    Great article with many interesting points I could comment on, but one thing immediately comes to mind. You mentioned that Holacracy provides a “prescriptive” solution and I wouldn’t disagree, but simply add that the current prescriptive approach emerged from experimentation and reflection…NOT theory. So, while it may be prescriptive, it is equally descriptive. In fact, the rules of Holacracy (i.e. as documented in the Constitution) are always evolving based on how the approach is actually employed. I think that is one of the key differences. Holacracy is BOTH a prescriptive model for organizational governance (for those business leaders and partners who need that structure without wanting to get into the details) AND an evolutionary algorithm for how humans get work done within an “organization.”

    • Jon

      Thank you for this additional clarification and insight, Chris.

      I have great respect for Elliott Jaques’ work and I agree with your point about needing some effective structure.

      I’d love to learn more about Holacracy .. the approach and its implementation .. and I am certain that many organizations (most ?) need some sort of clear path to follow to become more effective, more flexible and more respectful of the human talent at work on purpose.

      I hope more organizations decide that it will be useful to work with the principles and methods of holacracy.

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