Leadership in Non-Hierarchical Teams

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Traditional, hierarchical models attempt to limit the possible outcomes by putting a structure around the team to mitigate potential risks and maintain control. This has an opportunity cost; it serves also to limit variety.

Hierarchy constrains creativity.

Start-up culture has fought valiantly against traditional hierarchy in favour of experimental creativity. In a tech industry where organisations are constantly innovating it’s far more common to see distributed leadership and flat organisational structures.

The rise of the Adhocracy is testament to the value of dynamism, innovation and risk-taking that cannot necessarily be found in established structures. Non-hierarchical structures create the conditions to distribute problems to those who can solve them fastest and so uncover the best outcome organically.

And it’s working, tech companies are growing at more than double the rate of the UK economy.

Leadership and hierarchy are not synonymous.

Non-hierarchical teams are typically more comfortable working with unknowns. Discovery — a dedicated piece of work designed to create a shared understanding of the project goals — is part of the everyday process. Decisions are made transparently and with all members able to input to the conversation.

That said, not all decisions are made equally. Even with the best intentions and in workplaces that claim to have a “flat” structure, some opinions are given more weight than others. In effect they are hierarchical by other means; whether that be political or based on a quantitative measure, e.g. sales figures or years of experience.

If we can harness these influencers within the organisation, we can create effective leadership structures without implementing hierarchy.

Leading through conflict.

These influence-based leadership structures shine most when a team is faced with growing uncertainty.

Take, for example, a growing company that must adapt to a changing market and is faced with redundancies. The sensitivity of the information being discussed requires opaque decision making that, of course, have negative consequences for some individuals. This is the exact opposite of how non-hierarchical teams are used to working.

Here we need our influencers to rally, using whatever experience that sets them apart to communicate the positive intent of the decision.

My favourite example of this comes from the UK Armed Forces where its leaders are trained in Mission Command. This is a technique focussed on leveraging the human elements of trust and initiative, in times of reduced certainty, to effect a clearly communicated intent. The commander makes a point of clearly defining the intent of the mission but does not dictate the means by which it is achieved.

Embrace influential leadership styles

With the intent-based approach, the end goals are clearly communicated as is the teams own place within the wider plan. This should ultimately breed understanding of the bigger picture and promote stability, trust and a sense of belonging.

In a study by the London Business School, it was found that Collaboration improves when the roles of individual team members are clearly defined and well understood. Without such clarity, team members are “likely to waste too much energy negotiating roles or protecting turf”.

Don’t be afraid of seeking out hierarchy-by-other-means. In fact, embrace it when looking for your leaders.



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