I don’t know about you, but when I see an image like this, the LAST thing that runs through my mind is, “What a work of art!” or “What a clear cut chart!” I’m probably thinking about something more along the lines of, “I need a minute or two to even understand what I’m looking at.” This, my friends, is an image I found online with the title, “Obamacare” . Now, I swear I have no agenda one way or the other regarding this topic. I simply Google’d “crazy org chart”, and this was the most interesting looking result. Let’s be honest. For some people, this level of complexity is downright scary. At the risk of being too callous, I had an easier time figuring out what was happening in Picasso’s “Guernica” when my wife and I viewed it in a gallery in Spain.
When I was a novice and even a mid-level professional, I thought creating complicated tools proved someone’s intelligence and skills. I took this approach with things I created and envied those who created even more complex tools than mine. As I’ve become more seasoned, I realize my time is too valuable to spend figuring out things that should have been stated more simply. When I see images like this one, I typically give up right away and push them aside until someone is available to summarize them for me in a few sentences. This way, I can quickly understand the value and go back to other important work. In the case of organization charts, it goes one step further, because this is not simply a case of over-complicating a diagram. It is a case of the diagram being too complicated because the underlying idea is too complicated.
“Org Charts” as the cool kids call them, might tell us that John Smith reports to Jane Jones who reports to Mary Thomas who reports to Jeremy Novacek. There are many people at the bottom and a fortunate few people at the top. People spend their careers trying their best to progress from associate to manager to director to vice president. This is the org chart. It is the most well known example of a “hierarchy” and I don’t think I like it. Here’s why.
This kind of hierarchy suggests that roles at the top are more important or capable and those at the bottom are less so. There are so many levels between the supposedly least important roles and the supposedly most important roles that communication becomes very difficult. This of this like a tall mountain range. Tall mountain ranges are challenging to climb. In fact, superb athletes climb tall mountain ranges because they enjoy how arduous the challenge is. Organizational communication should not be an arduous challenge. It should be as simple. People who understand the goal are people who create value. If the mountain range is too tall, not only can those at the bottom not easily communicate with those at the top, they cannot even see them.
Instead, I present to you: “Lowerarchy”. I am not saying I coined this term but I think I define it differently from others online. My idea of Lowerarchy is to eliminate as many levels as possible so we are no longer defined by the magnitude of our titles, but by specific skills and experiences. I am not a manager, but I have expertise that I worked hard to build. I may know more about coaching process than a Director does because he may have come through the ranks focused on database administration. Why then, do we use titles in business to determine who gets the most control across daily challenges with which they are unfamiliar?
Of course there are exceptions to this rule. Some industries like the military, healthcare, the police force, and others need a steeper hierarchy. I think the unifying reason is that they could result in danger or death if the wrong people are performing the wrong tasks. It’s a case of defining what really constitutes an emergency. If 2 business professionals debate the merits of competing business processes, and the sub-optimal one is implemented, it can cause unhappy customers, loss of revenue, and multiple things that are all important, but they are not true emergencies. People would not die if the wrong choice is made. With these examples as the admitted exceptions, innovation works best with collaboration among experienced peers and experimentation with new ideas. How would your professional world be different if instead of creating never ending ranks of people like the image above, we instead leverage the following Lowerarchy?
A Model of a Lowerarchy
This Lowerarchy is dramatically different from the image we saw and described above. I think the initial reaction is, “Wow! This is clear enough for me to attempt to read now.” In fact, it reveals some marvelous ideas:
- It is much easier to read because there are fewer items so they are bigger. No more squinting headaches!
- It is in fact possible to redesign an overall approach to business so it can be communicated more simply.
- This image is not scary. Even if it takes me a couple minutes to get the gist, I am at least making an attempt now instead of running away.
- This approach treats all experienced resources as equals who happen to have expertise in different areas. It removes the stigma associated with having to get approval to share information and encourages experienced people to provide value using all of their skills in an unencumbered way.
- It shows us that once we reach a certain level of expertise and experience, we can work collaboratively to learn fresh perspectives from each other. In fact, each of those boxes in my Lowerarchy chart may have several people with the same skill set, but they might have different equally valuable perspectives.
- Novice resources have direct access to a variety of people with different areas of expertise without wondering if they are going through the proper channels.
Back to the Mountain
Revisiting our mountain analogy, I’ve turned the old catchphrase on its head and made a molehill out of a mountain. Try to really visualize this because i think it helps make it clear.
- If you were literally walking at the base of a mountain range, and knew that all the resources you needed for survival were located at various heights, and you had to rely on line of sight to find them, what would be your chance of survival?
- Now visualize a different experience. You are still asked to locate resources needed for survival, but now you are walking through the Great Plains where everything you need is laying on top of small hills no more than a few inches tall (the average height of a molehill).
- At the mountain range, there are places where you can’t see more than a few inches past your face, but in the Great Plains, you can see for miles. Is it starting to make more sense now?
If we spend as much effort establishing Lowerarchies by changing our mountains into molehills, we can have a huge impact on making organizational communication more efficient and effective. Answers will come quickly and collaboration among experts in synergistic areas will create massive value for our clients.
I realize this idea is revolutionary and not everyone will agree with it, especially those currently residing at the top of an org chart hierarchy. However, if we really think about it, should our personal and organizational success be defined by our titles or by our actual contributions? Think about it.
Long live the Lowerarchy!
Thank you to http://thebonnieblueblog.blogspot.com/2010_12_26_archive.html for the great Obamacare image!