Sunday, October 11, 2015

Is Hierarchy Good or Bad for Systems?

System hierarchy is different from the command control hierarchy.

As complexity is pushing the boundaries of the thinking and traditional systems, what we do know is "those larger and more complicated systems" do not have the requisite agility to adapt to more complex and adaptive environments. The more nonlinear, interconnected, and interdependent the environment, where uncertainty and emergence become more prevalent, hence accelerated rates of change, the less likely ordered hierarchical systems are to be the answer due to the rigidity. Hence, we need to adapt to the Systems Thinking and reimagine the digital organizational structure. Systems Thinking is the ability to think the "whole," and understand the interconnectivity of its parts as well.

As with all things pertaining to systems, context and perspectives are everything: Is hierarchy an essential part of every system, like many things in this world, "it depends." Hierarchies are brilliant systems inventions in the industrial era, not only because they give system stability and resilience, but also because they reduce the amount of information that any part of the system has to keep track of. However, at the emerging digital age with the nature of hyperconnectivity, nonlinearity, and interdependence, the overly rigid hierarchy becomes the very obstacle to stop the digital flow and stifle innovation. To be a highly functional system, the hierarchy must balance the welfare, freedoms, and responsibilities of the subsystems and total system, there must be enough central control to achieve coordination toward the large-system goals, and enough autonomy to keep all subsystems flourishing, functioning, and self-organizing.

The onion-like organizational layer is different from the command-control type hierarchy: Every system is a subsystem of a larger system and simultaneously it is always build up by subsystems. Some organizations leverage systems principles to introduce different concepts of hierarchy, in which systems evolve and interlink to create larger systems, within even larger systems, and so on, and these systems of systems can forge or alter a myriad of relationships/alliances. In this scenario, the hierarchy can be viewed as onion-like layers rather than the command and control hierarchy, though this is not to say they must be mutually exclusive. "Keep an open mind" to enable exploration of new possibilities, because the best system solution is one that responds perfectly to its environmental circumstances.

The hierarchy shouldn’t stop the digital flow and stifle innovation: On reflection, it is possible through highlighting system successes and failures to argue when hierarchies have contributed to both outcomes, and normally digresses thereafter into blame or claim games. The most common anecdote is how managers/leaders tend to restructure if they sense things are becoming dysfunctional, and often with mixed results, but at least, they are "seen to be doing something." Do ALL systems require hierarchy? it depends on your intent and stated purpose. There are systems with limited purposes and needs and don't need any hierarchy definition. Although in certain circumstances, hierarchy performs well, often the symptoms such as silo thinking or bureaucracy caused by rigid hierarchy fail organizations to achieve the next level of agility, or make the solution less optimal and sometimes a burden.

Every system has its position in the hierarchy of systems. However, system hierarchy is different from the command control hierarchy. The highly complex and dynamic system needs to be elaborated in a well-organized effort. The goal is to make hierarchical systems adaptive so that they can respond to the challenges of a more complex, interconnected, and interdependent world.


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