Monday, April 30, 2012

Pyramids and Plum Trees - on Organisational Philosophy

Everybody at some level has a thing against the rigid pyramids of organisational hierarchies, and the inflexible bureaucracy they harbor.  Okay, it may just be the people I mix with... but at any rate, Gordon MacKenzie certainly does, and his Orbiting the Giant Hairball provides some provocative reimagination that is fruitfully atypical.

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.


  1. John,

    Great insights. Especially the point about higher-level strategies translating into lower-level objectives within a pyramid system only via a long game of 'chinese whispers'...

    I see a lot of wasteful (but generally harmless) activity here by Directors + ADs in guessing what the Secretary's off-the-cuff comments about (say), 'improving product quality' or 'harnessing the power of markets' mean for our day-to-day work. Sadly that second example is a real one.

    Clearly (to me at least) the problem is indirect lines of communication, which is a needless problem as top-down communication can certainly be done without intermediaries.

    But still - as much as the tree metaphor is just darned lovely, what does putting it into practice actually, concretely, involve? How would your example, performance management, be undertaken differently?


    1. Thanks TH. I wrote this response a long time ago - meant to discuss it with you in person because it was too rough and convoluted. But we didn't get around to it. I thought I should post it anyway, for the sake of loose ends.

      Your questions are too challenging for me. The best way of creating an answer might be something like a joint imagining regarding some specific environment. But I will try to imagine something by way of response.

      If I'm not eloquent, it's a sign I don't really know what I'm saying.

      To take a straightforward example, personal work plans are a one-way affair. They are 'integrated' with organisational planning, but in practice this means 'derived from'. The relationship could be two way.

      Imagine that you believe - knowing your organisation's purpose, and understanding your own working environment - that you could be doing something differently. Something that would better serve that purpose, but isn't actually consistent with current business plans. Rather than this being impossible, part of your planning process could be feeding back into adjusting higher-level plans to make them consistent with your perspective.

      To be a bit more concrete, imagine you were working in comms in a government department. You are trying to increase the followers of your organisation's Twitter account, in the name of public participation. Fair enough. Suppose it was your professional opinion that you should instead have an an organisational facebook page, and that you could promote participation by having policy officers publish draft documents and foster public discussion on them. Only nerds have Twitter accounts anyway. Same goal, similar approach in lots of ways, but forseeably in contradiction of organisational policy - and despite being relatively minor, it would require (in government at least) high-level approval to try. In short, it's an idea that will likely not happen, even if you're a professional social media officer and you're the best placed to make the call.

      Imagine instead that your personal work plan started with what you thought you should do, and that organisational policy was derived from employees' collective (negotiated) work plans. There would be a solid process of collectively determining organisational direction, at least the finer points. Who knows in this instance what you would actually end up with, but the answer wouldn't have been fixed before you had the chance to comment. You might discuss this with your manager, with whom you develop a compromise (e.g. trial), and who feeds back into the performance process that the organisation's communication strategy needs to be revised to allow freedom to trial a similar level of social media engagement in different mediums - and unless this contradicted the organisation's core strategy, or the suggestions of other staff, it would go ahead.

      As it currently is, we seem to use a range of bolt-on feedback mechanisms, like innovation pipelines, feedback boxes and consultation workshops. And to make a change like the above initiative would probably require a business case to change the system. Trials are difficult.

    2. But wait! My whole response didn't fit into one comment...:

      I've gotten rambly and I don't think I've really made a point about how things are or should be... but hopefully I've made a point that it's possible to imagine a few subtle changes that might have a substantial impact on what performance systems come up with. Maybe?

      And yes, there's a question that has popped up between the lines, about what should be determined from the centre (the 'core'), and what should be fed in from the collective. I suppose there's a continuum, or maybe a boundary around decision-making prerogatives. Coming back to why plum trees are so tasty, on this continuum many (if not most) organisations are too far towards the centralised end - this has been my experience. It varies a lot, but devolved organisations are bucking the trend, because their approach isn't consistent with a pyramid philosophy of organisations. It's just a philosophy, a thought metaphor, and people may or may not line up with that philosophy. But it helps if they do. And it helps if your philosophy is a good one for what you're trying to do.