Contact: info@cleararchy.com

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Introduction

Hierarchies are much maligned these days and self-management is all the rage in the digital media. There is a lot of talk of networks replacing hierarchies, self-organizing teams replacing conventionally managed teams, and so on. Several frameworks such as Sociocracy, Holacracy, and Teal have been proposed, all promising to help realize this bold vision, and some early movers have tried to adopt them in recent years. However, their experience has fallen short of expectations, so much so that a number of them have reverted to more conventional ways.

Among tech organizations, Github and Medium have given up on their idealistic pursuit of non-hierarchical organization. Zappos offered a severance package to employees who were not comfortable with Holacracy and lost a third of their workforce in the process. AES Corporation, a Fortune 500 company in the energy sector is probably the only large organization to have benefited from Teal, but unfortunately, even they moved away from Teal under new leadership.

Cleararchy provides an alternative, pragmatic approach to organize hierarchy for the digital age. Its prescriptions stand somewhat in contrast to the popular but ineffective anti-hierarchy stance of self-management frameworks.

To begin with, let’s unpack what hierarchy means in a corporate context. Hierarchy is not a monolithic construct. Broadly, we have reporting hierarchies, communication hierarchies, and decision-making hierarchies. For instance, every corporate has a signing authority hierarchy as a means of delegating authority over expenditure decisions. This is a type of decision-making hierarchy. Org charts, on the other hand, depict reporting hierarchy—the most obvious form of corporate hierarchy. Finally, communication hierarchies are the least documented and the most informal of hierarchies. In a traditional set up, communication hierarchy is closely aligned to reporting hierarchy. In the so-called networked organization, communication (not reporting) is non-hierarchical—the graph of who can have official interactions with whom resembles a network.

Given this multi-faceted nature of hierarchy, what does it mean to be a non-hierarchical organization? A Cleararchical organization aims to minimize communication hierarchy, contain reporting hierarchy and reform decision-making hierarchy.
Why minimize communication hierarchy? To help break silos and to facilitate a free flow of (non-sensitive) information across the organization. Seamless communication within the organization is necessary (though insufficient) for a customer experience that is seamless across products, channels and regions.

Why contain reporting hierarchy? To bring senior management and executive leadership closer to the action. When the CEO is fifteen reporting levels away from the coalface, their understanding of reality is, in some ways, fifteen levels removed.

Why reform decision-making hierarchy? To institutionalize a culture of learning from the consequences of previous decisions. And to enable true decentralization of decision-making without loss of alignment.

At first blush, this may seem like a mere tweak of old-school command-and-control thinking. As we get into the details, we’ll see that it is anything but a tweak. Of course, Cleararchy stops short of completely abandoning hierarchy because unlike other idealistic formulations, it recognizes that hierarchy is inevitable in human organizations.

Hierarchy Is Inevitable

What happens when you get rid of an hierarchy? Unofficial hierarchies inevitably arise in the absence of official ones. They are worse because they cannot be held accountable (since they don’t officially exist). That’s the insight of an influential essay about the feminist movement of the sixties. Titled as “The Tyranny of Structurelessness”, it therefore argues for formalizing hierarchies and building accountability in. Some excerpts:
A “laissez faire” group is about as realistic as a “laissez faire” society; the idea becomes a smokescreen for the strong or the lucky to establish unquestioned hegemony over others. This hegemony can be so easily established because the idea of “structurelessness” does not prevent the formation of informal structures, only formal ones.
As long as the structure of the group is informal, the rules of how decisions are made are known only to a few and awareness of power is limited to those who know the rules…For everyone to have the opportunity to be involved in a given group and to participate in its activities the structure must be explicit, not implicit.
The essay goes on to describe principles for a democratic structuring of activist groups but that is not so relevant for a business context.
Evgeny Morozov references the above essay in an article arguing why social movements shouldn’t bank too much on the internet:
…social movements will never be able to transcend hierarchies and replace them with horizontal networks. [This view] was cogently expressed by Jo Freeman in 1972 in her landmark essay “The Tyranny of Structurelessness.” Freeman argued that hierarchies are bound to emerge anyway, and that pretending that they do not exist simply lets unacknowledged leaders escape accountability.
He goes on to quote a participant in the Occupy protests:
One of the consequences of just how difficult and time consuming participating in the movement became is that key players stopped showing up. Well not exactly; they still showed up, but mostly for side conversations, informal gatherings, and the meetings that planned what would happen at the public meetings. Using social media … they formed an invisible guiding hand that simultaneously got shit done, avoided accountability, and engaged in factional battles with each other … you know what’s worse than regular same-old elites? An [sic] barely visible elite that denies it is an elite and can’t ever be called to account.
And so, in our present, collective state of evolution, we inevitably end up with decision making hierarchies one way or another. It is tied to our need for control. Large organizations made up of self-organized teams inevitably end up with hierarchical (implicit, if not explicit) decision making structures. Cleararchy accepts this reality and provides ways to make decision making rights explicit, transparent and most importantly, accountable. It is not pro-hierarchy. It is pro-dealing-with-inevitable-hierarchy.
Organization is necessary and organization implies hierarchy. At best, we can try to keep the hierarchy honest and accountable. Eliminate hierarchy and you eliminate organization and thereby the effectiveness of a group. An article in The Nation touches on this issue in a different context and quotes Robert Michels, a German social theorist on the nature of organization:
In his classic book Political Parties, he wondered why the parties of the left, so ideologically committed to democracy and participation, were as oligarchic in their functioning as the self-consciously elitist and aristocratic parties of the right. Michels’s grim conclusion was that it was impossible for any party, no matter its belief system, to bring about democracy in practice. Oligarchy was inevitable.
For any kind of institution with a democratic base to consolidate the legitimacy it needs to exist, it must have an organization that delegates tasks. The rank and file will not have the time, energy, wherewithal or inclination to participate in the many, often minute decisions necessary to keep the institution functioning. In fact, effectiveness, Michels argues convincingly, requires that these tasks be delegated to a small group of people with enough power to make decisions of consequence for the entire membership. Over time, this bureaucracy becomes a kind of permanent, full-time cadre of leadership. “Without wishing it,” Michels says, there grows up a great “gulf which divides the leaders from the masses.” The leaders now control the tools with which to manipulate the opinion of the masses and subvert the organization’s democratic process.
Cleararchy attempts to stem the natural corruption process described above with the help of clear articulation of the decision making hierarchy and with decision records.

Reforming Decision Making Hierarchy

More than ever, digital age organizations need to be responsive to signals and feedback from customers, from the market in general, and from regulators. This calls for a inclusive, accountable, and decentralized system of decision making. However, the status quo in many organizations is a centralized system that is not so inclusive or accountable.

Cleararchy does not mandate collective or consensus-based decision making as the way to make it inclusive. That path, in most corporate cultures, often leads to decisions that are made unilaterally but are presented as the result of collective deliberations. Instead, Cleararchy relies on clear demarcation of decision rights and input rights for each category of decisions. Input rights provide for inclusivity. Decision rights provide for autonomy and accountability and they speed up decision making. To make this happen in practice, Cleararchy advocates the use of discussion and decision records and the practice of decision retrospectives. That's it.
  •  Category-wise assignment of people with decision rights or input rights.
  • Discussion records
  • Decision records
  • Periodic decision retrospectives
Simple but not necessarily easy to implement in an organization used to conventional ways of decision making.

What about evidence-based or data-driven or data-informed decision making, one may ask. Cleararchy is highly compatible with these methods. In fact, data or evidence is usually demanded in any robust discussion towards a key decision. But in the absence of clear input rights or a discussion record or the prospect of a retrospective, it is non uncommon for people in power to provide a less than adequate response to requests for evidence or data. Cleararchy provides a formal framework to nudge decision makers towards greater rigor in decision making.

Besides, even tech companies, for all their expertise with data, aren't always rigorous in their decision making. In his memoir about his product manager days at Facebook, Antonio Garcia Martinez points out:
As I observed more than once at Facebook, and as I imagine is the case in all organizations from business to government, high-level decisions that affected thousands of people and billions in revenue would be made on gut feel, the residue of whatever historical politics were in play, and the ability to cater persuasive messages to people either busy, impatient, or uninterested (or all three).
 

Decision Records

Decision records are a mechanism to balance the authority of decision makers. They help sustain institutional memory of the rationale for decisions. When combined with decision retrospectives, they help an organization make better decisions by learning from previous ones.

What is it?

It is a record of key decisions along with arguments (in favor/against/alternatives etc.) along the way. It is useful for the categories of decisions that result in substantial deployment of resources and/or have proven to be controversial or painful in the recent past.

How does it help?

It helps the organization learn to make better decisions faster without too many meetings. It allows for real empowerment via autonomy for decision making and balances it with a culture of accountability.

How does it work?

We maintain a record of important decisions and hold periodic decision retrospectives to learn from hindsight and to reflect if the decisions we made were the best given the information available at the time.
First, an executive sponsor comes up with a set of decision categories that could benefit from a decision record. Examples of common categories are product strategy, funding, sourcing, build-vs-buy decisions and staffing.
Next, they establish decision owners and a circle-of-input providers for each decision category. Decision owners have the autonomy to make decisions and are held accountable for them. They are required to solicit written input from their circle-of-input but not mandated to go by the input. This gives them autonomy for decision-making.
In order to balance decision-making autonomy with accountability, we have the decision record. It dissuades decision owners them from disregarding input and helps the group retrospect and learn from previous decisions. To make this process effective, we capture along with decisions, their expected effects and expected time-frame for the effects to play out. This information is used during retrospectives.
The decision owner or anyone from the circle-of-input can table a topic as something that requires a decision. After a few days of offline deliberations, the decision owner makes a decision along with a short description of what effect the decision is expected to have by when. The decision owner may also nominate someone from the circle-of-input as decision-maker on a case by case basis.

Recording discussions vs. decisions

Although it is a good first step, only capturing decisions does not ensure that all relevant parties are heard. For that, we a discussion record and a decision record. The best discussion records are those that aren’t captured after a discussion (as in, minutes of meeting) but captured as they happen. This calls for a culture of discussing in writing, not easy but doable with executive sponsorship and change management.

What tools could we use?

If we only recording decisions, not the discussions leading up to them, we could just use the corporate document repository. For discussion records, we could start simple with a corporate discussion forum per decision-making group. Once the practice catches on, we could graduate to structured discussion tools such as Kialo.
Here’s a snapshot of a structured discussion (go to info/stats/topology in the menu on the linked page) on the topic of decision records. The grey circle at the center represents a proposed decision. The green and red areas surrounding it represent arguments for and against (a) the proposal (first layer) or (b) the arguments (subsequent layers).

Decision Retrospectives

Decision records become powerful when we supplement them with the practice of retrospecting on decisions. Decision retrospectives are similar in spirit to Agile retrospectives. Once a quarter, each decision group picks the decisions that haven’t been covered in retrospectives so far and whose expected effect time-frames have elapsed. For each decision, the group compares actual effects and time-frames with what was recorded as expected. The reflect if the decision was the best one under the circumstances and discuss potential learnings.

Expectations

For non-urgent decisions, decision-owners shall allow for a minimum of days (e.g. 5 days) for discussion before making a decision.
For urgent decisions, it might work better to have a meeting and record the key arguments later. The decision owner posts the summary and input providers reply with corrections, if any.
Decision owners are expected to read threads initiated by others within a certain maximum number of days (e.g. 3 days) of posting. While there is no requirement to respond, decision owners will be assumed to have taken the input into consideration in future settings.

Mechanics

A new discussion thread can be:
Initiated by decision owner
  • Soliciting input towards a decision to be made
  • Soliciting feedback for a decision that’s nearly made
  • Soliciting input for change of earlier decision
  • Soliciting feedback for a proposed change of decision
OR
Initiated by input provider
  • Propose a new topic that requires a decision
  • Suggest a change to a decision
  • Affirm a decision with new information
When a decision is made, the decision owner shall state the decision in the thread. Threads that don’t culminate in a decision may represent stalemates and a potential indicator of organizational dysfunction. If a decision goes against certain inputs, it is good practice to explain why the decision was made despite the input.

Where has it been used?

Decision records based on Cleararchy have been used in several situations:

· Prioritization decisions: How do we decide what projects to invest in or what to prioritize in a product roadmap? Traditionally, these decisions are made by a committee that reviews project or feature proposals. Unfortunately, these decisions are often subject to the power dynamics within the committee. The combination of decision records and retrospectives helps create traceability and accountability while at the same time also offering the opportunity to learn from previous decisions.

· Product strategy: Sometimes, we arrive at a fork in the road in terms of product strategy and are forced to choose. In one organization, the product group choice often differed from that of an innovation lab. Cleararchy based decision records helped break decision deadlocks and reduce animosity between the two groups.

· It also been used to break through differences of opinion between sales and engineering as to the timing of a release, between architects on architectural choices, and between managers on changes to team staffing.

Decision-making in writing in the 21st century! Are you serious?

You bet. It may appear to be slow and cumbersome at first, but once you see the results in terms of reduced meetings, reduced challenges of synchronous communications, greater clarity of thought and the power of a record based retrospective, there will be no going back. To know more, please refer the chapters on accountability and communications in the book Agile IT Org Design.
What is the state of the art? Meetings. Yes, we decide things in meetings (or through meetings). We know how well that works out:

It gets all the more entertaining with video conferencing technology:

Hope that's enough motivation to try something different (doing it in writing). Verbal, meeting-based, decision making may sound as natural as creating a slide deck to make a pitch. And then we see the way Amazon does it. Jeff Bezos explains why:
Well structured, narrative text is what we’re after rather than just text. If someone builds a list of bullet points in word, that would be just as bad as powerpoint.
The reason writing a 4 page memo is harder than “writing” a 20 page powerpoint is because the narrative structure of a good memo forces better thought and better understanding of what’s more important than what, and how things are related.
Powerpoint-style presentations somehow give permission to gloss over ideas, flatten out any sense of relative importance, and ignore the innerconnectedness of ideas.


A similar kind of executive backing is need to move to a culture of deliberating in writing for serious decisions. It may not be easy but it is certainly possible.