top of page

New ways of getting things done

Updated: Jan 10, 2021

An organization is an entity. It may be a group of people working together for a purpose.

Yet, an organization changes. The organization of an organization is an activity, and here the meaning relates to the creation of discipline and order.

Technology has changed the way people and organizations interact and relate to each other.

The degree of interdependence generated in a global connected economy and the degree of interconnection between people significantly change the drivers of individual and collective success.

Essential to these drivers are the organizational structures that coalesce value from disparate participants.

What are the ways of getting things done, and done well?

"There are three ways of getting things done in organizations" writes Gerard Fairtlough, former CEO of Shell Chemicals UK and founder of biotech firm Celltech.

He says: "When I was young I thought hierarchy was the only way to run organizations. Although in those days I’d barely heard of the great sociologist Max Weber, I unknowingly shared his belief that an organization couldn’t exist without a hierarchical chain of authority. Now, after over fifty years working in organizations of many different kinds, I’ve come to realise there are two other, equally important, ways of getting things done and that it’s vital for us to understand these other ways."

The three ways of getting things done in organisations are: Hierarchy, Heterarchy and Responsible Autonomy. These are three forms of rule and governance. Interestingly, these three forms may operate all at the same time in different manner in the same organisation.

If hierarchical power is the power system of centralized systems, then heterarchical power is the power system of decentralized systems, and responsible autonomy is the power system of distributed systems.

"Heterarchies, that bring together elements of networks and hierarchies, are the most relevant organizational structures for our times.", says Karen Stephenson, an influential social network theorist and corporate anthropologist, and contributing member to the Global Business Network strategy think tank.

I tend to agree, although we also need to understand why and when Hierarchy often seems to trump Heterarchy and Responsible Autonomy, especially when complexity and rate of change do not prevail over the rigidity of a hierarchical organization.

Research findings confirm our intuition that human relationships are optimized when humans feel they are valued at the same level.

What is greatest in human beings is what makes them equal to everybody else. Everything else that deviates higher or lower from what is common to all human beings makes us less. If we know this, we can develop a deep respect for every human being. We can also attempt to lead change in a respectful manner.

A hierarchy assigns more decision-making power and privilege to the members high in the structure. A heterarchy distributes privilege and decision-making power among participants. Responsible autonomy is purer self-organization--i.e. it has no inherent structure. It distinguishes itself from anarchy by holding decision-makers responsible for the outcomes of their decisions.

But what do we know about heterarchical organizations? How do we manage or lead heterarchical organizations, if this is at all possible?

These are questions that will keep us busy for many years to come.

Heterarchy - Quotes from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia:
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 in 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. Hierarchy and heterarchy are not mutually exclusive. In fact, each level in a hierarchical system is composed of a potentially heterarchical group which contains its constituent elements.
Whereas hierarchies sort groups into progressively smaller categories and subcategories, heterarchies divide and unite groups variously, according to multiple concerns that emerge or recede from view according to perspective.
Observers in the information sciences have argued that heterarchical structure processes more information more effectively than hierarchical design. Heterarchy increasingly trumps hierarchy as complexity and rate of change increase.
Informational heterarchy can be defined as an organizational form somewhere between hierarchy and network that provides horizontal links that permit different elements of an organization to cooperate whilst individually optimizing different success criteria.
In an organizational context the value of heterarchy derives from the way in which it permits the legitimate valuation of multiple skills, types of knowledge or working styles without privileging one over the other.


The Square and the Tower, slides by Niall Ferguson

Networks and Hierarchies by Niall Ferguson

84 views0 comments


bottom of page