Last week I started this conversation about insights spurred by my recent reading of The 4-hour Workweek by Timothy Ferriss. I shared his ideas about how we allow the wrong tasks to consume our valuable time [read part 1 of this series]. Equally compelling, and our topic for today is how Ferriss makes a case for busting through the confines of the traditional hierarchical organization.
To give context for this discussion, please allow me to share a brief history lesson. As the industrial revolution moved workers from agrarian work to factories, business owners applied military leadership models known as hierarchies to their structure. The hierarchical structure concentrates power and decision authority with leaders at the top. They are in place to direct the action of the rank and file beneath them, whose role is to execute unerringly and without question. Although the value of this modus operandi may prove itself on the battlefield, in the 20th Century, many companies found this model detrimental to achieving their aspirations.
In Chapter 11, "Management by Absence," Ferriss offers the alternative - creating a process-driven instead of leader-driven business by removing oneself from the center of all decision making. He provides specific examples of using rules, guidelines, and processes in his own company, which allowed his employees and business partners to serve his customers without the use of an exception and escalation process that required his attention.
Ferriss is not alone in the idea of dismantling traditional hierarchical structures to generate a highly functioning organization. This Forbes series explores several alternative organizational designs to increase productivity and performance. Embracing the tenet that those performing work know the most about it and are best able to make informed decisions, requires that we confront our unchecked belief in the importance of leaders as the authoritarian control.
During my time as a human resources generalist, I participated in many conversations regarding the appointment of titles to newly created leadership positions. In traditional hierarchies, a title holds importance because it carries with it position power. It connotes success through place above others in the hierarchy. A title also determines inclusion in meetings, conversations, decisions, and privileges. Unconsciously, we reinforce an unexamined belief that those who are smartest and know the most ascend the hierarchy. The result is organizational designs that place leadership positions in the center of information flow and decision making. Unfortunately, this is often an inefficient and costly design flaw.
Ferriss shares the example of Applegate Farms founder Stephen McDonnell as the alternative. In an Inc.com feature article, McDonnell describes how he sees his role as this.
For the past 25 years, I have physically gone to the office only about once a week. Through certain periods, it's been twice a week, but rarely more. I work largely out of my office at home. I think you can observe what's happening so much easier from the outside than when you're inside of it. Your whole outlook changes. You actually become kind of a therapist to your organization. When you're inside it, you're the patient.
If you are one of the many business owners and executives who regularly find yourself overworked and exhausted, it is likely the result of unconsciously adopting the roles and processes of a hierarchical design. By choosing to hold onto power and authority, you are also choosing stress, de-energizing conversations, and unproductive tasks.
Perhaps more importantly, you are robbing yourself of the full value of the resources available to you in the people whom you have chosen to be part of your organization. In choosing to empower those same people with authority and decision making, you not only free yourself, you also ignite passion and commitment that flows through your team to your customers.