Imagine you could run a community on autopilot. There would be no tier of "managers". Only people who create value by doing what they love and letting the rest fall into place. How much faster could you make decisions? How much conflict could you erase? How much bigger could you grow? How much more creative would the culture be?
Since time immemorial, we have been pondering what to do with surpluses. But the kind of surplus that most evades us is the surplus of creativity that exists in all our brains. Enter hierarchy.
The purpose of social hierarchies is to organize social groups. This helps allocate limited resources, promote social learning, and maximize individual motivation.
Evidence indicates that social hierarchies are endemic and innate. They evolved to support survival within a group context.
A Flag to Fly
From childhood, we learn to view our social world in terms of who is better and smarter. Even as adults, we are quick to identify status symbols such as foreign cars, big houses, and career titles.
Hierarchies deliver real practical and psychological value. On a fundamental level, they don't just enslave us, they also fulfill our deep needs for order and security. And they get big jobs done. Hierarchies give us more than these somewhat questionable measures of our worth. They give us an identity; a flag to fly.
Write down - quickly, off the top of your head - three short answers to the question: "Who are you?" At least one of your answers will have something to do with your role in hierarchy.
Hierarchies can be very effective at providing the psychic nourishment we all need. Of course, many are even more effective at draining that nourishment from our minds and souls.
But hierarchy is more than nature's way of helping us to process complexity. Powerful psychological forces come into play. Hierarchies offer clear markers that show how fast we are climbing the ladder of success.
Without hierarchy, will there be anarchy? Not necessarily.
Most of your community moderators will be volunteers. This requires a different management style. It's definitely not your traditional command and control approach.
There is a proliferation of companies that are aiming towards this structure as an ideal. About 20% of the world's websites are now on the WordPress platform. And yet, Automatic, the firm behind WordPress, only employs a couple hundred people. They work with a highly autonomous flat management structure. GitHub is another successful firm with a similar structure. Valve is a gaming company that makes Half Life, Portal and many other popular games. And they are famous for not having bosses at all.
Flat hierarchy does not mean a lack of leaders or managers. Instead, it centres on the expectation that you lead yourself - DIY management.
Open source communities are a great example of flat hierarchies at work. Anyone can join any project and choose what they work on through open allocation. Open allocation also increases individual accountability. This is because no one has the excuse of being put on a bad project or landing under a shitty boss. If you fail to make an impact, it's on you.
If a project is important to the community, someone will want to do it. The reason being that even if the project is unpleasant, it can build credibility.
When projects compete for people (open allocation) the result is better projects. When people compete (closed allocation) for projects, the result is worse people.
Scaling up means getting bigger. And that tends to mean hierarchies, which reduce agility and flexibility. To avoid this problem, communities can divide themselves into smaller modules. With a modular design, communities can maintain the stability that hierarchies offer. At the same time, they can provide the flexibility of flat hierarchies.
Conway's law states that organizations' design systems mirror their communication structure.
Here are three ways good communication prevents problems -
Communication isn't only the key to self-organization. It also solves or simplifies a bunch of other hurdles that growing communities face.
- Training is easier. When communication - not hierarchy - is focused on, it's easy for new community members to be themselves. They feel like their interests, projects, and initiatives belong at the company. This allows them to start creating valuable work right away.
- Marketing collateral is a natural by-product. Clear, and well-produced internal communication is easy to repurpose for external communications.
- Transparency. Messages often get distorted as they travel across the ladder of command. It is not just a matter of noise or random error. Self-interest and self-promotion drop in, and relevant information drops out. Self-directed organizations are based on trust, equality and fairness. All three demand open communication and transparency.
On paper flat hierarchies sound great. But when it comes to running a community, you don't have control of how people will behave. As the ones who started and own the community, members will look at you when they are faced with adversity.
You need a broad base of leaders who share a common set of values. They should feel personal ownership for the overall success of the organization. These responsible and empowered individuals will serve as much better watchdogs. Especially when you compare them to a single, dominant leader or bureaucratic structure. The best communities are benevolent dictatorships. They are founded upon strong principles as pillars.
Should you base your community on a hierarchical structure? Well, the answer typically depends on what kind of community you have. For personalized tips on community administration, reach out to the Scenes team for help.