PRB Articles

Circle The Wagons

It is likely that you share at least one trait with tribal chiefs, royal monarchs, military commanders and many CEOs--your organization or agency’s power is centralized, and flows from the top down in a series of levels ending at the “front line.” In fact, despite being “of the people, by the people, for the people,” our own democratic government displays this tendency. The president is commander-in-chief, issuing executive orders to myriad federal agencies, while Congress has its majority and minority leaders, whips and an elaborate seniority system.

The principal advantage of what is known as the hierarchical structure (see Figure 1) is that it (potentially) enables its leader to make quick decisions, unencumbered by stubborn opposition or lengthy debate. Of course, that same strength is also its main weakness: the disastrous consequences of a leader’s ill-considered, knee-jerk or arbitrary decisions are legendary. However competent, even the best leader can’t be an expert in all matters.

Another of a hierarchy’s weaknesses is its tendency toward bureaucracy, in which individuals at all levels of the structure seek to protect their own positional power by formalizing and regimenting their procedures (paperwork), resisting change (inertia), and expanding their size (larger budgets, more employees). Instead of working together as a team, each department competes against the others, and cutting through the bureaucracy has become a time-honored (but seldom successful) battle-cry of reformers of many stripes.

As entrenched as hierarchy may be, however, three more recent trends--flexibility, right-sizing and employee preference for autonomy--are challenging its dominance, setting the stage for the introduction of two alternative forms of structuring an organization or agency: heterarchy, and emergent.

Forming A Heterarchy

In this modern economy, it’s no longer enough for hierarchy to empower a leader to make quick decisions; they have to be the correct quick decisions, based on direct and immediate information gathered at the front line. Within the typical bureaucratic hierarchy, information is filtered as it passes (or doesn’t pass) through the normal channels to and from the leader’s desk, influenced by bureaucrats’ competing interests.

This sequence slows and may alter information and action. Regardless of how quickly the leader actually makes an important decision, it will be implemented too late if the issue has been “caught in the system” for any length of time. This inflexibility eventually proves fatal as the organization consistently is out-maneuvered by more nimble competitors.

Second, as organizations of all types (public, non-profit, market) move to the entrepreneurial model, maintaining an abundance of employees has become unaffordable. One solution has been to reduce one or more layers of hierarchy in an effort to streamline organizational payrolls (after all, labor represents 80 percent of the typical organization’s expenses).

Agencies now are pressured to outsource, offshore, contract, de-layer, and downsize to find their workforce’s “right-size.” This lean and mean structure is referred to as a heterarchy, and addresses both flexibility and economic necessity (see Figure 2). Fewer employees reduce both payroll costs and influence on the decision-making process, and the elimination of layers facilitates internal communication and implementation.

Nevertheless, a heterarchy continues to feature the hierarchy’s centralized leader who, as mentioned earlier, is not expected to be knowledgeable about everything, and in the worst-case scenario, might not know much about anything. This is where the third structure emerges.

An Emergent Structure

In the same way hierarchy is reflected in military rank, the emergent structure is equivalent to the fabled Knights of the Round Table (see Figure 3). Within this arrangement, all agency personnel sit at the table, are considered equals regardless of their actual rank, and have a right to contribute to the discussion and to vote on any decisions. More importantly, however, is that each of the members is an expert in at least one of the crucial issues that an organization or agency might face.

The emergent structure, then, is not leader-less, but requires the person whose expertise is particularly applicable to a given situation to move from the perimeter to center-stage to take charge of the team. When the problem (or opportunity) has been resolved, that interim leader returns to the circle of peers to await the next call to duty. Emergence is composed of equals, so information is shared instantaneously with the whole group rather than being filtered through layers; its smaller size is economically efficient; and its (always interim) leader is an expert who can make truly informed decisions.

Fact Or Fiction

It sounds too good to be true, and if it is so good, why hasn’t it become the dominant organizational structure? Certainly, inherited tradition, inertia, power and influence and conflicting points-of-view each play a restricting role (and would take a book to discuss), but agency size immediately comes to mind. Is there a point at which an organization becomes too large for the emergent structure to function effectively?

Our country’s founders recognized this possibility by creating a representative democracy, which also was copied by the states and by most local governments. One can imagine the chaos of trying to call a meeting of all 300-million-plus American citizens each time a law needed to be considered. In many ways, the House of Representatives and Senate are emergent structures composed of equals, each of whom has particular expertise and the right to equal voice and vote. Yet, even the U.S. Senate, at only 100 members, struggles to produce an uncomplicated--let alone quick--decision.

Make It Work

But all hope is not lost. One possibility is to create emergent structures within smaller-scale units or departments while remaining part of the larger “archy” (see Figure 4). In this instance, one member of the emergent structure remains connected to the larger structure in the normal way (e.g., vice president of marketing), but the unit itself (e.g., the Marketing Department) operates collaboratively.

During the 1970s, large corporations began emulating the Total Quality Management (TQM) model by forming work teams whose members supposedly were empowered to act relatively autonomously. Initially, these teams were quite successful, and some of them continue to exist today, but many do not, perhaps because the team structure often was imposed from the top, not developed naturally among its members.

So, if you’re considering whether the emergent structure can work for you, the lesson learned from the TQM experience is that long-term efficiency and effectiveness emerge from within a group of people who share a common philosophy, vision and mission, and who seek the autonomy to structure--and re-structure--the organization in a way that allows for flexible leadership based on true collaboration. Circle your agency’s wagons to meet external challenges, not to protect internal bureaucratic turf.

Kim S. Uhlik is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Hospitality, Recreation and Tourism Management at San Jose State University. He can be reached via e-mail at

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