What do we mean by “non-hierarchical” anyway?

This is a post I wrote for EmcArts:

In a new poll of arts workers, EmcArts finds that non-executive employees of arts organizations under the age of 50 are more motivated to work hard and want to stay in organizations where their ideas are respected and implemented, where they are empowered make decisions, and where they are connected to the artistic mission. Surprise! That may seem like a no-brainer to many of us (including EmcArts, I’m sure). And yet, this data is an important reminder because there are still many organizations out there where these seemingly basic principles—respecting the ideas of others, treating employees as if they matter no matter what age they are or position they are in, fully taking advantage of the available talent in your organization, distributing responsibility and power—are not being practiced. It is even more important because these principles are strongly linked to organizational success.

At Helicon we’ve been studying “bright spots,” cultural organizations that are deemed exceptionally successful by their peers, to find out the secret to their success. We have found that the organizations that are thriving are ones where the leaders empower others and distribute responsibility, cultivate an environment of trust, enable everyone to make a contribution, have transparent decision-making processes, and source good ideas from all levels and parts of the organization. Sound familiar? So, not only does transparent, distributed, empowering leadership make employees happier and more likely to stay, it actually leads to greater organizational success.

As always, though, the devil is in the details. In a bright spots workshop we led recently someone asked, “what do you mean by ‘non-hierarchical leadership’…isn’t hierarchy necessary sometimes?” I’ve been thinking a lot about that. I think at times when we are attempting to right a wrong, we tend to assume the solution is in doing the opposite. I’ve seen the error in this approach first-hand recently in working with an organization that was structured as a collective. Despite the workers’ deep belief in democratic decision-making, they all admitted that their non-hierarchical structure did not work. The decision-making process was belabored and inefficient, and there was no accountability or leadership. Talented people often left the organization in frustration over the challenge at getting good ideas implemented. What’s more, despite the absence of an official hierarchy, an informal power dynamic had taken over, and left many in the group struggling with the same issues revealed in the EmcArts survey—not feeling heard, empowered or respected.

So maybe rather than the hierarchy / no-hierarchy dichotomy we need to ask a question like, “what kind of structures and processes can facilitate our making the best decisions, discovering the best ideas, tapping relevant expertise and working most effectively (and happily) together to realize our mission?” After all, as Ben Cameron points out in his response to our report, “someone in the rehearsal hall has to make the decision on the blocking rather than reaching consensus,” and it is to any organization’s great advantage to respect and utilize knowledge where it exists – including among people of younger generations.

On practice and perfection

We’ve been leading some bright spots workshops lately, which involve arts leaders analyzing their organizations beforehand in a survey and then working some issues that are challenging them by using the bright spots principles. In one of these workshops, Jessica Robinson Love from CounterPULSE asked, “I am curious that the bright spots methodology is all about looking for what is working in the system, and yet when in applying the framework to our own organizations you are asking us to look for what isn’t working. I wonder if there is a way to use the same concept of looking for brightness to the process of developing these bright spots principles?”

I think it is a brilliant question. I don’t have the answer, but I’ve been thinking a lot about it.  I believe in the methodology of looking for what is working and building off of it, and why wouldn’t that apply within an individual organization as well as a system? And yet I also know that sometimes there are blind spots where nothing seems to be working, or disconnects where replicating what is working in one area won’t help us solve a problem in another. For example, if I am really bad at budgeting realistically, can I just double down on my strength in creating compelling theater pieces? Probably not, I’ll just end up deeper in debt. So I think that there is also value in being honest about ones own organizational weaknesses and learning from others who are finding success.

But what Jessica’s question brings up for me in this moment is the need for us to hold both our strengths and challenges in mind at the same time, so that we can approach the practice of improvement from a place of empowerment and capacity rather than deficiency. And this is really the way it is. So far, none of the organizations who have taken the survey are challenged at everything. More importantly, however, every one of them has some strength in each of the five areas (based on the ADEPT qualities in the paper), even if it is an area in which they struggle overall. (Notably, there is also not one organization that has taken the survey that is perfect in every category.) In our next workshop in Seattle we’re going to try to work this more, we’ll see how it goes.

One more thought. Zen master Suzuki Roshi told his students, “You are perfect just as you are. And there is always room for improvement.”  We can be as harsh on our organizational flaws as we are on our personal ones, so I like this way of thinking about organizational evolution. It allows us to engage in honest inquiry about where we can improve, without judgment. It also reinforces what I think is one of the fundamental lessons of this research, which is that we are really talking about “practicing brightness,” not “achieving brightness.” As with any area of mastery, practice is as important for the master as the beginner. There is always room for improvement.