In a self organized structure, hierarchy is only its safety net, not its engine or heartbeat.
In every organisation that we want or need to function well, systems for alignment and checks and balances are established. Conventional thinking and the way we have been trained to use structures and alignment in the past usually point us in the direction of clear guidelines, rules, regulations and of using the «proper channels» within the hierarchy to take decisions and to make sure our organisations interests and structure are protected.
New knowledge about interactions and collaboration, and a world that is turning and changing ever faster, on the other hand, steer us in the direction of self-organisation, networked teams, purpose, agreements and conversations instead of appointed functions, rules, regulations and guidelines.
The legal entities we use to conduct business have a system of checks and balances in place that make sure that the organisation functions in a proper way, and that is a good thing. We do not have to get rid of them, we just have to use them in a new way or from a new perspective.
In my understanding, both systems (hierarchy and self-organisation) are very compatible with each other if it is clear what happens where and why.
The law prescribes rights and responsibilities for roles and groups, such as the CEO, the shareholders assembly, the auditor or the employee. This is of course also a framework for decision making, but mainly, in my opinion, for the case when the self-organised structure comes to a limit, for whatever reason.
We can take on roles and responsibilites without conventional role thinking and conventional hierarchy. The idea of a self organized structure is this: When we encounter something in our path that interferes with the way we are supposed to fill this role, we raise a hand and say «stop». People knowing in what role we are currently thinking, operating and arguing, will respect this. But only if we have all thoroughly trained ourselves to function in such a way.
Being able to say «stop» requires that the whole system is transparent and that everyone can know everything unless there is a real reason to keep it a secret. Visual systems like roadmaps or kanban boards can help create that shared transparency, along with regular conversations that are not classical meetings with agendas, but true encounters of people talking about the things that are crucial right now.
Alignment in a self organized, collaborative structure does not mean chaos and «everyone does as he or she pleases». Alignment means that everyone in the organisation takes on one or several roles, puts on one or several hats and makes sure that at any given moment he or she is acting from the perspective that the current role defines, acting in the interest of the whole organisation, not from a hierarchical perspective.
In aligned organisations, leadership is not hierarchical. Leadership happens and should happen at all levels. If a person encounters something that contradicts the purpose of the company, the person takes action, points out the problem or tries to fix it, in accordance or coordination with others as he or she sees fit.
If I feel comfortable taking a decision alone in my realm of work, I can do that. If I do not feel comfortable, I seek out the counsel and guidance of others or of the appropriate person. But I do that not from a hierarchical standpoint:
«have to ask my boss and she has to ask her boss and he has to ask the CEO»
but from a perspective of alignment:
«I wonder how others would solve this problem, let’s see what happens if I talk to x,y and z about it»
This might seem like a small difference, but it is a difference in ownership of leadership and of empowerment to learn to take risks and decisions and to learn and grow together.
In structures that are aligned without hierarchy or with as little hierarchy as possible, discussions about purpose, collaboration and trust become essential at all levels.
I see such structures lead from the inside-out rather than from the top down.
Let’s see how an alignment structure can be built from the foundation up, for instance in a startup.
A small group of founders starts defining what they want to achieve, what their common purpose is. Additional people join the team until each viewpoint the organisation needs has a seat at the common table. This core team becomes the heartbeat of the whole organisation, aligning itself around all topics, learning to interact, communicate, solve problems and deal with crises.
Everyone acts out of their roles but is interested in the perspective of everyone else. Alignment happens very regularly and a culture of having conversations is established. A collaboration manifest helps to make agreements explicit.
Once people join the company as employees, the heartbeat-team has ideally reached a maturity state from which they can be role models for those coworkers, showing them what alignment means and that there is a team in place they can trust, not because they are the «bosses» of the operation, but because they are truly aligned around the common purpose and the collaboration manifest of the organisation and because they are already trained in the art of communicating around that purpose and manifest all the time.
Such a structure can also be built in a change-process in an existing structure, of course, though it will be harder. But change is always hard.
Hierarchical decision making can and will still play a role in such an organisation at certain moments. But hierarchy is the final safety net, not the engine of the operation. The engine and the heartbeat are alignment, searching for clarity together, creating harmony and learning how to best work towards the common purpose.