When working out how your business is going to organise itself, thinking of a structure that is not hierarchical is incredibly difficult.
Hierarchy describes a way of organising people. Hierarchy comes from the Ancient Greek hierarkhēs, meaning Sacred Ruler. If you are a business owner, you sit at the top of the hierarchy, with your employees at various levels ‘below’ you on the organisational pyramid. Information, privilege, prestige trickle downwards, from CEO to manager to worker.
Is top-down top?
The idea that runs through this is that in a hierarchical organisation, people are not equal. Directives come from the top, with little to no feedback mechanism at play from lower levels to upper levels.
The reason that hierarchies are the standard organisational structure is because this is a natural way that an organism (social or otherwise) can organise itself in order to achieve a goal.
However, hierarchical organisation is not the only way to achieve goals in a group. There are alternative ways of structuring an organisation that may allow better results, given certain preconditions.
Introduction to an alternative business structure
Heterarchy describes a system of organisation that can best be understood as democratic. Democracy is the most prominent example of a heterarchical system in human society – individuals in a group have an equal say in determining the path that the group should take.
In a heterarchical organisation, the parts of the organisation are distinct, and perform distinctive roles, but all parts feed information back in order to inform the direction of the organisation. Until very recently, people thought that the human brain was hierarchically organised, with some areas strictly dominating others so as to achieve common goals. In the 1950s, this understanding was overturned, and a heterarchical model became the replacement model. Just as hierarchy exists in nature, so too does heterarchy.
Heterarchy can inform your business organisation in a number of ways. The current trend towards shared ownership in enterprises reflects an anti-hierarchical sentiment – if those working for a company have a greater personal stake in the well-being of the company, they are less likely to work to its detriment. Another modern business trend – the flat organisational structure – reflects heterarchical models of organisation. In flat organisations, equality between colleagues is emphasised; the benefits reported in such structures include increased personal accountability, a greater sense of value in work, and more commitment to the common cause of the company.
Similarly, increased decision-making stakes and improved bottom-up communications, which are amplified with the modern ability to share relevant information more easily, can result in better business decisions, when there is an effective way of aggregating the information inputs.
It is unlikely that, as a small business owner, you will be willing to wholly cede control over your enterprise. However, reflecting on the way that your business organises itself, and questioning whether you can adjust that structure so as to harness your employees better, may result in your taking advantage of some of the organisational insights of heterarchy.