Creating career progression without management hierarchy

Companies structured without traditional management hierarchy enjoy many benefits. Yet they’re sometimes perceived as having less clear paths for career progression, without a promotion ladder to climb. The solution to this lies in changing the lens used to view the organisation, allowing individuals to optimise a unique set of roles for themselves, and creating ‘external use only’ job titles.

Movin’ on up

The idea that in work we want to continually ‘move up’ is deeply engrained in the culture of industrialised countries. Many people get a kick out of each upgrade to their job title from junior, to senior, to manager, to chief-whatever-officer.

All kinds of things can be projected onto a job title: a feeling of self-worth, accomplishment, recognition, power and success. Rightly or wrongly, these are things many people seek from work.

So where does this leave us in companies operating without traditional hierarchical org charts which can be climbed like a ladder? What happens when individuals don’t have a job title which clearly displays their rank, and where the concept of ‘promotion’ no longer exists?

This is the question facing a brilliant, very progressive company I’ve been talking to about this recently. They want to move away from a traditional fixed management hierarchy to something more dynamic, centred around contributing to the overall vision, not based on a top-down structure of power-over-people.

This is a smart move with lots of benefits. Yet there’s a risk that without a traditional, familiar path of progression through promotion, talented individuals might feel like they cannot progress, and will seek progression by leaving the company.

Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be a trade-off. Here’s how you can create career progression without management hierarchy.

A different lens for organisations

The starting point is to use a different lens to look at the organisational structure. Rather than the old hierarchy of people, instead there’s a hierarchy of purpose or vision. This means focussing on how the overall vision for the company breaks down into ever more specific ideas which are being realised in service of it.

This is best visualised as a set of nested circles, with the outside edge representing the overall vision, then a pattern of smaller circles within it representing more specific ideas. The focus is not on the lines of power leading up to a CEO, but on how everything contributes to one overall vision/purpose/mission (whatever you prefer to call it.) Every initiative to realise some sort of idea in a company can be mapped into this diagram giving you a useful visualisation of the whole thing. Maptio is an online tool designed specifically for this mapping and visualisation process.

A zoomed out visualisation of a hierarchy of vision created using the Maptio tool.

A network of people and roles

Using this alternative lens, individuals can appear in multiple places on the map. Sometimes they might be the person with overall responsibility for a particular initiative and sometimes they have a supporting role. It also means the same information can be visualised as a network diagram as well as a hierarchy of nested circles. This is rather pleasing because it breaks down the currently fashionable idea that hierarchy is old and bad and networks are modern and good. In fact the two can coexist very effectively.

A view like this is far more dynamic that a traditional org chart. Org charts usually stay pretty static until the whole thing is deemed unfit for purpose, then it takes a bit effort to redesign it and ‘manage the change’ to a new one. Instead, an initiative map gradually morphs over time as initiatives start, grow, merge and close. It changes in response to the environment it operates in, and to whatever’s needed to realise the overall vision.

A different game

For individuals this can completely change the game of career progression. It means they no longer have a single job title and job description and face continuous internal competition for ever fewer senior roles the further they move up the hierarchy.

It’s not that competition is bad — it can be very healthy, productive and fun when used consciously. Yet a culture too heavily based on individual, internal competition can distract from the collaborative task of realising a vision. Competitive cultures are also unhelpfully biased, favouring more competitively-minded individuals, whereas you need a mix of styles to create a diverse and creative team.

Without management hierarchy, individuals instead can have a collection of roles in various initiatives. It’s a bit like holding a hand of cards. The game for individuals becomes about gradually putting down and picking up roles so their hand is optimised for their own personal sense of growth and fulfilment, and where they can best contribute their talents to the overall vision. And of course there’s scope to create new roles by starting new initiatives.

This means that the old sense of scarcity and competition for fewer positions as you move ‘up’ the ‘chain of command’ practically disappears.

There’s always an abundance of opportunity for everyone to optimise their set of roles. People who want to can still ‘get ahead’ but it doesn’t mean it has to be at the expense of anyone else.

People can be on the move as much or as little as they like. Everyone’s running their own race in their own way.

The sense of progression comes not from occasional promotions, but much more regularly each time they find a way to let go of a less interesting role that can be passed to someone else who’s happy to take it, and pick up a new role in an initiative that will be more energising for them.

External-facing job titles

This is all well and good within the organisation, but for the time being, most of the rest of the world will still be operating using traditional job titles. Customers of a company often like to have a sense of who they’re talking to. Employees will still want to know what to put on their LinkedIn profile, resumé or business card.

Realistically, some people will find it harder than others to let go of the industrial age notion that a job title is important. They will project part of their identity onto it. Once they learn to thrive in a more networked, non-hierarchical environment, it’s likely they’ll care far less about job titles eventually. But in the meantime it’s OK to meet them were they are.

The way to do this is to invent job titles as they’re needed, but make them for external use only.

As the job titles aren’t being handed down by a boss which carries with it a certain stamp of authority, you can instead make them feel more real using a simple peer-to-peer process. Each individual asks for support from at least two colleagues to adopt a particular external job title that seems like a fair reflection of their particular set of roles. When they are approved they can be communicated to the rest of the organisation. You can use the familiar industrial-aged vocabulary of rank (junior, senior, manager, officer and so on) yet it’s made clear that the job title just an external reference point and has no special status internally. What counts internally is the set of roles. You can also celebrate these moments in team meetings to acknowledge the development people have made. By adding the peer-to-peer rigour in the process, you aren’t mere playing lip service in a patronising way, but creating a sincere recognition of the person.

If these organisational, practical, symbolic and personal aspects all are addressed it’s possible to get the benefits of a more dynamic and collaborative working community and at the same time create a very motivating experience for the individuals within it where everyone can feel like they are growing.

Tom Nixon is the founder of Maptio, a new online tool for mapping and visualising organisations without traditional management hierarchy. You can sign up for early, pre-launch access to Maptio.

You can subscribe to the Maptio publication here on Medium for more ideas like this. If you liked this article, you might like our eight-point manifesto for self-management done right.