Sunday, January 26, 2014

Son of Hierarchy

Following my post of six days ago (Hierarchy in Cooperative Groups) I got a burst of responses from Abe that makes me wonder how god a job I did at expressing myself, so I'm devoting today's entry to a response:

Abe #1
Expertise and influence are not the same thing as hierarchy. 

I agree. While influence is the basis for differences in power, hierarchy (in cooperative groups, which is what I was writing about) exists when individuals or subgroups (such as a committee or task force) are authorized to make decisions on behalf of the whole. That is, the authorized person (or persons) can make decisions that others in the group cannot.

Delegation is not the same thing as hierarchy, as long as the community has oversight.

If the individual or subgroup is authorized to make decisions binding on the whole then it is hierarchy. If the individual or subgroup is only advisory—and the ability to make decisions continues to be held by the plenary, then delegation does not necessarily equate to hierarchy (I'm equivocating here because sometimes managers or committees accrue enough power that it is very difficult for others to object to their proposals, even when everyone in the group has that power in theory. 

Having oversight, or the ability to overturn a subgroup decision, is not that same as having the power to institute a decision. The essential point here is that there is an official group-blessed power differential. 

When I'm advocating for the judicious use of hierarchy in cooperative groups, I am not proposing that that managers or subgroups be given absolute power such decisions cannot be questioned. Rather, I'm trying to make the case for delegating authority in the interest of reserving plenary attention only for those things where full group engagement is prudent.

Expertise in a participatory community can stand by itself. The power is in the knowledge itself and not the person. 

Not quite. Sometimes authority is given to people simply because they are perceived to be wise; not because they are perceived to have superior skill or more experience relevant to the job description. 

As a contrast, if a teacher holds hierarchical authority over a student, the power is in "because I said so!"

Hierarchy is the structure that results from the belief that some people are superior to others. It is also the structure that promotes that belief.

While that's one version of hierarchy, I'm talking about choosing to delegate authority because it's more efficient (and because experience and skill relevant to the job are not uniformly distributed among group members).

Laird, you have written recently on your blog about the delicate balance of delegation. If delegation gets too far from center, transparency and decisions that are representative of the group take a loss. 

Hmm. If "too far from center" means coloring outside the lines (exceeding the authority given by the group), then I absolutely think there needs to be a way to rein that in. I'm a big fan of clear mandates that spell out when the subgroup can act on behalf of the whole and when ti needs to consult. Further, mandates should spell out reporting requirements (which address transparency concerns). For a more thorough presentation of a delegation template, refer to my blog of March 20, 2010, Consensus from Soup to Nuts.

That said, I don't that managers or committees necessarily need to make decisions that are "representative of the group" so much as they need to make decisions that are in the groups best interest, and in line with their mandate. Sometimes the best decision is not the most popular.

I end up having conversations with people new to the idea of an egalitarian community. They get caught up in the root word "equal" and say, "Well we can not be all equal! Some of are better at this than that, and we all have different abilities." I respond with saying that egalitarianism is about giving people more equal access to resources and decision-making. If a member comes into our community and is taller than the rest of the group, we're not going to lop off his feet to shorten him. 


Similarly, democracy or participatory decision-making does not mean all decisions are made by everyone about everything all the time. It does mean that for a healthy democracy, hierarchy is to be avoided.

Sorry, Abe. I don't buy it. Within the context that hierarchy (delegation of authority to a subgroup) is accompanied by: a) clear mandates; b) a thoughtful process for selecting the person(s) who fill the position; and c) regular opportunities for evaluation, then I'm of the view that healthy cooperative groups of 20 or more people probably cannot function well without hierarchy.

—Abe #2
Here is another point of concern for certain types of delegation:

"We are in an age that assumes the narrowing trends of specialization to be logical, natural, and desirable. Consequently, society expects all earnestly responsible communication to be crisply brief. Advancing science has now discovered that all the known cases of biological extinction have been caused by overspecialization, whose concentration of only selected genes sacrifices general adaptability. Thus the specialist’s brief for pinpointing brevity is dubious. In the meantime, humanity has been deprived of comprehensive understanding. Specialization has bred feelings of isolation, futility, and confusion in individuals. It has also resulted in the individual’s leaving responsibility for thinking and social action to others. Specialization breeds biases that ultimately aggregate as international and ideological discord, which in turn leads to war." - Buckminster Fuller (Synergistics 1975)

If you're saying that delegation and specialization can be taken too far, I agree. If, however, you're interpreting Bucky Fuller to mean that all delegation is specious, I think that's going too far. After 40 years of community living (the last 26 of which I've been a process consultant, and have worked professionally with perhaps 100 groups), my overwhelming impression is that most cooperative groups delegate poorly and members are loathe to serve on committees or to accept managerships because so much of their work is undone or regularly second-guessed in plenary. 

The problem is not so much that the subgroups or managers are too specialized in their knowledge; it's that the plenary doesn't know how to let go (all the while complaining about how frequent the meetings are)!

—Abe #3
Hierarchy can be efficient in the decision making, and slow in the implementation. 

Only if the mandates are unclear, or the subgroup is doing a poor job of soliciting and working constructively with input from outside the committee.

Underlings tend to drag their feet more. Having a sense of common ownership brings more investment to workers.

I agree with this. If delegation translates into an us/them dynamic (by which I mean dividing the group into an in-the-subgroup faction and a not-in-the-subgroup faction) then you'll definitely have problems. But clean delegation doesn't have be like that.

In carrying out the values and thoughts of a group, hierarchy is very inefficient. 

Huh? Not if you have the right people in the right roles.

It would be better to take from permaculture and plan more ahead of time, so the implementation is quicker and so the system can sustain itself longer. 

I'm pro planning, pro being careful about crafting good mandates, and agree that when decisions are handled well in cooperative groups then implementation sings. Yet those things do not add up to an injunction against delegating authority. They add up to being prudent.

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