Hierarchy is not inevitable

I’m on the record in believing that Quality as a process is an inherently progressive one and that when we stray from those progressive roots we become exactly what we strive to avoid. One only has to look at the history of Six Sigma, TQM, and even Lean to see that.

I’m a big proponent of Humanocracy for that very reason.

One cannot read much of business writing without coming across the great leader (or even worse great man) hypothesis, which serves to naturalize power and existing forms of authority. One cannot even escape the continued hagiography of Jack Welch, even though he’s been discredited in many ways for his toxic legacy.

We cannot drive out fear unless we unmask power by revealing its contradictions, hypocrisies, and reliance on violence and coercion. The way we work is a result of human decisions, and thus capable of being remade.

We all have a long way to go here. I, for example, catch myself all the time speaking of leadership in hierarchical ways. One of the current things I am working on is exorcising the term ‘leadership team’ from my vocabulary. It doesn’t serve any real purpose and it fundamentally puts the idea of leadership as a hierarchical entity.

Another thing I am working on is to tackle the thorn of positional authority, the idea that the higher the rank in the organization the more decision-making authority you have. Which is absurd. In every organization, I’ve been in people have positions of authority that cover areas they do not have the education, experience, and training to make decisions in. This is why we need to have clear decision matrixes, establish empowered process owners and drive democratic leadership throughout the organization.

Balancing Expertise

Quality professionals are often defined by our technical knowledge, and with that can come a genuine and intense love and interest in the work. In the pharmaceutical/med-device work, I work in this is defined by both a knowledge of the science and of the regulations (and that stuff inbetween – regulatory science).

The challenge here is that we start defining ourselves by our role as we progress as representing the highest level of expertise in this technical expertise, which means senior Quality (as in the department) jobs are defined in terms of in service to our function – patient safety and product quality (safety, efficacy, and quality). This can then lead to seeing people as the “means” to that end. This inevitably leads to prioritizing that outcome over people.

Do not get me wrong, results matter, and I am a firm proponent of product quality and patient safety. But this approach is reductionist and does not serve to drive fear out of the organization. How can people be safe if they are considered a means to produce value? We need to shift so that we realize we can only get to quality by focusing on our people.

Quality, Decision Making and Putting the Human First

Quality stands in a position, sometimes uniquely in an organization, of engaging with stakeholders to understand what objectives and unique positions the organization needs to assume, and the choices that are making in order to achieve such objectives and positions.

The effectiveness of the team in making good decisions by picking the right choices depends on their ability of analyzing a problem and generating alternatives. As I discussed in my post “Design Lifecycle within PDCA – Planning” experimentation plays a critical part of the decision making process. When designing the solution we always consider:

  • Always include a “do nothing” option: Not every decision or problem demands an action. Sometimes, the best way is to do nothing.
  • How do you know what you think you know? This should be a question everyone is comfortable asking. It allows people to check assumptions and to question claims that, while convenient, are not based on any kind of data, firsthand knowledge, or research.
  • Ask tough questions Be direct and honest. Push hard to get to the core of what the options look like.
  • Have a dissenting option. It is critical to include unpopular but reasonable options. Make sure to include opinions or choices you personally don’t like, but for which good arguments can be made. This keeps you honest and gives anyone who see the pros/cons list a chance to convince you into making a better decision than the one you might have arrived at on your own.
  • Consider hybrid choices. Sometimes it’s possible to take an attribute of one choice and add it to another. Like exploratory design, there are always interesting combinations in decision making. This can explode the number of choices, which can slow things down and create more complexity than you need. Watch for the zone of indifference (options that are not perceived as making any difference or adding any value) and don’t waste time in it.
  • Include all relevant perspectives. Consider if this decision impacts more than just the area the problem is identified in. How does it impact other processes? Systems?

A struggle every organization has is how to think through problems in a truly innovative way.  Installing new processes into an old bureaucracy will only replace one form of control with another. We need to rethink the very matter of control and what it looks like within an organization. It is not about change management, on it sown change management will just shift the patterns of the past. To truly transform we need a new way of thinking. 

One of my favorite books on just how to do this is Humanocracy: Creating Organizations as Amazing as the People Inside Them by Gary Hamel and Michele Zanini. In this book, the authors advocate that business must become more fundamentally human first.  The idea of human ability and how to cultivate and unleash it is an underlying premise of this book.

Visualized by Rose Fastus

it’s possible to capture the benefits of bureaucracy—control, consistency, and coordination—while avoiding the penalties—inflexibility, mediocrity, and apathy.

Gary Hamel and Michele Zanini, Humanocracy, p. 15

The above quote really encapsulates the heart of this book, and why I think it is such a pivotal read for my peers. This books takes the core question of a bureaurcacy is “How do we get human beings to better serve the organization?”. The issue at the heart of humanocracy becomes: “What sort of organization elicits and merits the best that human beings can give?” Seems a simple swap, but the implications are profound.

Bureaucracy versus Humanocracy. Source: Gary Hamel and Michele Zanini, Humanocracy, p. 48

I would hope you, like me, see the promise of many of the central tenets of Quality Management, not least Deming’s 8th point. The very real tendency of quality to devolve to pointless bureaucracy is something we should always be looking to combat.

Humanocracy’s central point is that by truly putting the employee first in our organizations we drive a human-centered organization that powers and thrives on innovation. Humanocracy is particularly relevant as organizations seek to be more resilient, agile, adaptive, innovative, customer centric etc. Leaders pursuing such goals seek to install systems like agile, devops, flexible teams etc.  They will fail, because people are not processes.  Resiliency, agility, efficiency, are not new programming codes for people.  These goals require more than new rules or a corporate initiative.  Agility, resilience, etc. are behaviors, attitudes, ways of thinking that can only work when you change the deep ‘systems and assumptions’ within an organization.  This book discusses those deeper changes.

Humanocracy lays out seven tips for success in experimentation. I find they align nicely with Kotter’s 8 change accelerators.

Humanocracy’s TipKotter’s Accelerator
Keep it SimpleGenerate (and celebrate) short-term wins
Use VolunteersEnlist a volunteer army
Make it FunSustain Acceleration
Start in your own backyardForm a change vision and strategic initiatives
Run the new parallel with the oldEnable action by removing barriers
Refine and RetestSustain acceleration
Stay loyal to the problemCreate a Sense of Urgency around a
Big Opportunity
Comparison to Kotter’s Eight Accelerators for Change