Hierarchy
how to move beyond it

The time of traditional corporate hierarchy is over. Well, if it’s up to us. Pyramid org charts, closed-off C-suites, profit over people: they’re dinosaur principles that no longer work. Why, and what does work? We’ll shine our light (but there are many ways to get rid of the old boys’ network that takes all decisions).

Hierarchy and corporate job titles

Back in the old days (and scarily enough, still today), titles drove hierarchy and respect. In an era where royals still ruled, loyalty to a title was greatly rewarded. Unfortunately, that is still the norm in most of today’s corporate world.

The typical corporate hierarchy job titles often lead to inefficiencies and a disengaged workforce. Instead of using job titles, progressive organizations have started replacing them with roles. Each person can have multiple roles; they don’t necessarily have to be within the same discipline. For example, an accountant with a love for graphic design could have both roles in the same company.

So, what is the benefit of using roles instead of the hierarchy of corporate job titles? Well, there are plenty. What about less ego, more happiness, and no more unused talents, to name a few?

Slowly, but surely, a fresh wind is blowing. Look at our list of pioneers, which grows every year. They choose differently. They choose people. Without job titles, people are free to do what they’re good at—without the limitations of a job description.

The problem with traditional hierarchy

Traditional hierarchical structures are still very common in the corporate landscape worldwide. But they have many downsides. These structures, often visualized as a pyramid, have the most authoritative professionals at the top and front-line employees at the bottom. Decisions are taken at the top, and information trickles down as well. Often it doesn’t make it all the way to the bottom of the pyramid.

This setup can have several issues.

  • Complicated chain of command.
    Hierarchies can slow down decision-making. The need for approval from multiple levels of management can lead to delays and inefficiencies.

  • Inconsistencies in management.
    Different levels of management may have varying leadership styles, goals, and expectations. This inconsistency can lead to confusion, affecting performance and job satisfaction.

  • Communication delays.
    Information often needs to travel vertically through the levels and horizontally between teams, causing delays. If it even makes it all the way down: hierarchies are often not transparent at all. Miscommunication is lurking. This hinders productivity and, overall, employee engagement.

  • Cooperation stalls.
    Research shows that egalitarian teams focus more on the group. In traditional hierarchies, employees feel a bigger need to fend for themselves. This may even be at the expense of others.

Real-life example

Let’s take a real-life example: the Dutch Police Force. In 2003, a crisis led to the formation of the Netherlands’ National Police, a shift from the country’s decentralized police organization. However, their top-down approach resulted in several issues.

One of the problems was that the police force was mostly reactive, with decisions made at the top and slowly trickling down. This led to inefficiencies and less innovation.

In response to these challenges, a strategic program was implemented to improve the organization. The program, known as ‘Q’, was there to boost innovation capacity. This approach, heavily influenced by ‘The Corporate Startup’, ‘lean startup’, and ‘design thinking’ principles, emphasized rapid experimentation, iterative development, and customer feedback.

The process involved several stages:

  • Idea generation
    The focus was on using the creativity of the entire police force. Everyone was encouraged to generate ideas for improvement, fostering a bottom-up flow of ideas.

  • Prototype creation 
    They trained and guided people to create workable prototypes for their specific challenges. Instead of developing a fully-featured product, they focused on developing a ‘minimum viable product’.

  • Experimentation
    Once the prototype was ready, it was tested with potential users to gather feedback.

  • Scaling up 
    If successful, they leveraged their Q network to quickly spread successful products and services to other parts of the organization.

This approach led to several successful innovations, such as a Cold Case Calendar, Forensic Screening with AI, and new ways of working based on Agile and Scrum methodologies. This created a more bottom-up approach within the Police force. It showed the potential for positive change when traditional hierarchies are challenged. Even in big government organizations.

Even though there is still plenty of room for improvement in the organization of the Police force, it shows what a change in hierarchical structure can do.

Alternatives to traditional corporate hierarchy

In the search for more efficient and innovative organizational structures, more and more companies are exploring alternatives to the traditional hierarchical model. The traditional pyramid org chart is fading away.

There are several flat organizational structures outside the traditional hierarchical org chart. These structures are (partly) implemented in various companies.

Middle-Manager-Less-Organizations (MMLOs)

The most basic step towards less hierarchy is one that’s close to our hearts. Let go of middle management. All of it. MMLOs are companies that run their businesses successfully without a middle management layer. They do not rely on a mechanical view of the organization but see it as a ‘social network’. A network with a dynamic, self-organizing character, guided by the interaction of its underlying building blocks. MMLOs can be organized in various ways. Each attempts to minimize hierarchy and bureaucracy.

Holacracy

Holacracyis a self-management practice that distributes authority throughout all layers of an organization. Instead of a traditional hierarchy, it uses a set of rules and procedures. These are collected in a ‘constitution’. The power lies within roles, not individuals, promoting decision-making at all levels. It’s a flexible framework, providing building blocks to structure an organization.

NER (New Style of Relationships)

NER, an acronym derived from the Spanish ‘Nuevo Estilo de Relaciones’, is a business philosophy pioneered by Koldo Saratxaga. It centers around the belief that people are responsible, sensible, and naturally motivated. NER focuses on making people the true center of an organization and promotes absolute transparency, trust, freedom, and responsibility. This approach almost always leads to more engaged and productive workplaces.

Sociocracy

This is a method that values equality in decision-making and aims to foster trust, transparency, and co-responsibility. In a sociocratic system, decisions are made based on consent. That means everyone has to agree — or at least not object — before a decision can be approved. The organization is structured in circles, or teams, each with its own aim and the autonomy to decide how to achieve it. Double-linking ensures communication between circles, with two members participating in both their circle and the next higher one. This structure allows for efficient information flow and co-responsibility.

Teal organizations

These organizations operate based on three core principles: self-management, wholeness, and evolutionary purpose. In short: self-management replaces the traditional pyramid structure. Wholeness encourages employees to bring their full selves to work, rather than separating their personal and professional lives. Evolutionary purpose means that the organization has a life and direction, and members are invited to listen in and understand where the organization wants to go.

Examples of other ways companies have structured teams:

  • Amoebas (Kyocera): Kyocera, a Japanese multinational ceramics and electronics manufacturer, is divided into small entrepreneurial units called amoebas. Each unit consists of about 5 to 50 people, all with a clear goal of making a profit for itself.

  • Cells (Buurtzorg): Buurtzorg, a Dutch healthcare organization, is structured around self-managing units — cells. These cells divide themselves after growing to a certain size.

  • Micro-communities (Haier): Haier has its own organizational structure, Rendanheyi. Basically, the company of 80.000 staff is divided into self-managing units that function as micro-enterprises. They can also join micro-communities. Decisions are made within each micro-enterprise. No need to report to C-suites.

Hierarchy - let’s get rid of the pyramids

We believe that traditional corporate hierarchy titles are simply outdated. We like to think that the world of work is ready for a revolution.

So, we challenge the traditional, hierarchical way of working and cheer for progressive management practices. Work is not a necessary evil, but a source of purpose. It can bring everyone a lot, and not just money. We believe in a world where work is inspiring, rewarding, and — dare we say it? — fun.

We explore the world to learn from pioneers who have already made that leap. How? By sharing their stories and ideas through our blog, books, and our comprehensive courses. Learn from the pioneers in the field, so you don’t have to make the same mistakes. By learning, you can make the right choice for your organization.

Download: Free Guide

Unlock our in-depth guide on trends, tools, and best practices from over 150 pioneering organizations.

Subscribe below and receive it directly in your inbox.

    We respect your privacy. Unsubscribe at any time.