Hierarchy is Dying. Is Your Organization Ready?

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Scott Burns Scott Burns

When I was growing up and just entering the workforce, it was common to hear the following statements of wisdom:

“Work hard and you’ll be noticed.”

“It’s important to wait your turn.”

“Companies reward those who make a long-term commitment.”

At my first real internship, my mentor at the firm told me that the ideal intern was first in and last out even if there wasn’t any work to be done, and that I should prove I can “make the best copies and the best coffee” before I expect anything else. I followed his advice and got the offer for full-time employment. I didn’t accept it.

Since launching Structural in 2017, I’ve had the chance to speak with hundreds of people leaders in different industries. The most successful companies aren’t just nervously waiting for hierarchy to crumble, they’re actively killing it. Here’s why:

1) If you put performance above hierarchy, you retain your best people:

You can get good people to work anywhere, but you can only keep the best people if you allow them to have an impact quickly.

Here are three real quotes I’ve heard from high performing employees:

“I ask myself every day if I’m having an impact, and if I’m not, I think about what I need to change. Maybe I need to ask for different work or maybe I need to look for a new job.”

“I’m looking for something entrepreneurial. If I find that here, great, but I’m also willing to go out on my own or go somewhere else. Life is too short to be a cog in a system I can’t impact.”

“I used to think I’d go out on my own, but here (large employer) they keep challenging me and giving me an opportunity to make connections and have an impact internally. I will work anywhere that allows me to have an impact, and here I can have a bigger impact because of the scale of our work and team.”

2) The only lifetime skills for many roles in the modern economy are the ability to find right collaborators and the ability to learn and adapt quickly.

According to John Seely Brown who co-wrote the book A New Culture of Learning, the half-life of a learned skill is 5 years.

In a hierarchical company, access to expertise gets trapped in silos, and you’ll hear the following:

“I don’t want other teams bothering my people.”

“You need to go through the appropriate ‘chain of command’ before seeking help outside of your team.”

“You need to ‘stay in your lane’ here.”

Companies that allow this type of thinking to prevail are ignoring the fact that highly-collaborative and effective contributors need to be able to promote their own skills and connect with others in an open and transparent way. An organization that doesn’t trust its employees to manage their workload while being able to connect with others as needed will quickly find itself with “doers” and not “learners” which is an organizational death sentence in a world where the half-life of skills is so short.

If your organization has already moving past hierarchical thinking, you’re likely seeing the benefits, but do you have the tools to amplify and support this transformation even for those highly-skilled people who are less adept at networking in your organization.

If your organization is still trapped in hierarchies, it’s time to rethink your approach. One simple step is to get your Millennials and Gen Zers into positions of greater influence

There are another 100 reasons or more to stop the hierarchical thinking, but just these two reasons should be enough for most ambitious organizations.

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