Hierarchy - as drawn by Russ Ackoff
Triarchy Theory refers to the three fundamental ways of getting things done in organizations: hierarchy, heterarchy and responsible autonomy.
All organizations use a mixture of these three ways, but the proportions can differ widely. At present, hierarchy is usually considered essential for all organizations. Heterarchy and responsible autonomy are often misunderstood or neglected. Here is an outline;
The pecking order is a common feature of animal communities, but there are instances where some animal groups - meerkats for example - have developed interchanging roles for the good of the colony. Even here, however, there are alpha males and females.
Triarchy theory suggests that our "addiction to hierarchy" drains the energy from collaborative projects and sometimes fails to recognise the input of able individuals whose contributions can be overlooked in a formal reporting structure.
We all know of bosses who have taken credit for work accomplished by members of their teams or who have stifled innovative work for reasons of company politics. But it is not only the possibility for this kind of behaviour that limits the effectiveness of hierarchy. A larger problem is the focus it places on a few designated individuals who are expected to make the right decisions on every occasion.
The problem with hierarchy is that it has too often bred authoritarianism, creating fear in some cases and dependence in others. So that 50 years ago, W Edwards Deming was urging organizations to drive out fear (even as others counselled managers to use fear to extract the best from their staff - a process famously likened to the potent "last fart of the ferret"). Even when a hierarchy is relatively benign it can inhibit independent thinking by maintaining habitual relationships, allowing some to settle in comfort zones with few responsibilities:
"In a strictly hierarchical organization, the only learning that takes place is the learning of the individual at the top. Everyone else obeys orders. An organization without learning will only survive in very stable conditions. In practice, of course, the lower ranks actually learn and adapt without being told to do so. But hierarchies tend to learn slowly, especially because a lot of effort goes into preserving the superior status of those at the top, inevitably an anti-learning activity."
Triarchy theory speculates that a spontaneous emergence of hierarchy among groups of people, even in pre-school children, may have something to do with genetic predisposition. This would help to explain why hierarchies are almost taken for granted in our society. But if there is no inevitability about hierarchy what sort of organization could exist in its place? The two alternatives are "heterarchy" and "responsible autonomy".
Heterarchy is divided, supported or dispersed rule where control shifts around depending on the project and the personality, skills, experience and enthusiasm of those who can make things happen. Much of the project work that is becoming common in large technology companies fits this kind of arrangement.
Triarchy theory then points to the kind of responsible autonomy enjoyed by fund managers who tend to be left to themselves if their fund is performing well. Success attracts a larger fund and more clients. Autonomy is provided by the internal policies of the investment institution. Accountability is provided by the performance of the fund.
Heterarchy's battles are those of ideas, fostering the kind of debate that demands greater personal responsibility. There is a mass of evidence to suggest that, in the 21st century, the time is ripe for sustainable change in the ways that organizations get things done. The result, triarchy theory suggests, will be a gradual move away from hierarchy in organizations.
For more on triarchy theory and practice, see The Three Ways of Getting Things Done. Parts of this outline are based on Richard Donkin's review of the book.
Additional web resources on triarchy theory:
The WorldChanging website has a very useful piece on flattening hierarchies. The article looks at Chaos and Complexity Theory and is gathering examples of successful non-hierarchical businesses - you'll see some of them in the follow-up discussion.
The Requisite Organization International Institute website has an introduction to science-based management, which stresses - inter alia - Felt-fair Compensation, Working Relationships and Stratification & Functional Alignment.
An article at the New England Complex Systems Institute website discusses complexity profiles and the behaviour of individuals in organizations - showing that hierarchical control structures prevent employees as a whole behaving in a more complex way than the individual who is exercising control.
There's a review of The Three Ways of Getting Things Done on The Economist website.
Michel Bauwens has done some interesting work on integrating triarchy theory into the framework of Peer to Peer (P2P) theory with a piece that talks about heterarchy and responsible autonomy in relation to decentralised and distributed systems.
There's also a huge amount of interesting discussion in the P2P Hierarchy Theory archive on things like Spiral Dynamics, Open Source and sociocracy. See it here.