We tend to think of ways to open up communication, get people collaborating, or flatten the org chart. In Bourgon's New Synthesis for instance, she advocates government combining vertical hierarchy (for accountability purposes) with horizontal networks.
MacKenzie once upon a time was asked to contribute to a Hallmark organisational restructure. But he didn't buy into the premise. What he did instead was seek to understand his own objections, and articulate how an organisation could be reimagined. He came to give a presentation advocating Hallmark look to develop 'plum trees'.
|Photo from Gabemounce blog|
I don't think there's a particular rationale for plums... but the metaphor is interesting.
MacKenzie sees a hierarchy where the top is assumed to be the most clued in (having the clearest vision), and the bottom works seven levels of delegation away from an actual view of the world. Of course, this is not exact reality any more than the next simple model, but it is the philosophy for how organisations work in 99% of cases.
In contrast, he envisioned the organisation with an executive trunk and management branches, which are all built purely to foster the creative production of the employees that make up the leaves and fruit - not the other way around. The tree's vision and connection to the outside world is primarily through its foliage, not the trunk. It is also flexible and adaptable to growing conditions and feedback from the canopy.
I'm not without reservations for the metaphor. It simplifies things, and in a few ways is just an inversion of the org-chart triangle - in particular it suggests management's function is just to support the 'real work' that employees do, and that the fundamental relationships should still be hierarchical (if inverted). I also think his exploration of the roots was more about completing the metaphor than actual illustration...
But that's not the point. It was still an invigorating read. It made me realise how pervasive a metaphor for the organisation can be, and how drastically different org structures and relationships can be imagined simply by changing these assumptions.
Taking the plum tree as an example... it could be implemented without real change to the organisation's network and positions. But it would have dramatic changes to the way people relate, and to the organisation's systems and processes. Priorities would be completely altered, with 'supporting staff' now suddenly being number one priority, and 'gathering intel from staff' as the number one means of developing an understanding to make decisions. Lots of organisations talk about these being priorities, but when you watch the decisions that get made in the higher halls of the org-pyramid, you usually notice a discomforting disconnect (and believe me, the staff notice too).
The way internal systems are set up - performance management systems for example - are usually heavily stamped with a pyramid philosophy. Think about the performance reviews you have done, the way you have been involved in business planning, or the last time an IT system was rolled out. You know something is a little amiss when an organisation has 'employer of choice' as a high level objective, that cascades down through the structural tiers, and leaves employees scratching their heads trying to create personal objectives that match their managers' interpretation of their directors' interpretation of the executives' interpretation of 'employer of choice', so that they can be properly accountable for how well they are contributing to corporate strategy. Which presumably is the only way we can be sure they are actually doing something worthwhile, right?
Yes it's silly - but when your philosophy is a pyramid, that's what you get.