Excellent article about working without managers

I would say that hierarchy and structure are two different things. Connections between people are natural, but I’m not convinced organizing those connections into a hierarchy is natural.

I’ll quote from the article I referenced earlier, which cites the work of two Stanford Social Psychologists:

Hierarchy is inevitable. As our Stanford colleagues Deb Gruenfeld and Lara Tiedens show in their detailed review of research on hierarchy, although the forms it takes vary wildly, it is impossible to find groups or organizations where all members have roughly equal status and power. Whether researchers study people, dogs, or baboons, hierarchies are evident after just minutes of observation. And when strangers meet for the first time, a hierarchy of leaders and followers begins to emerge immediately. This rapid development of pecking orders is seen, for example, in groups of college students who meet in psychology experiments and when strangers start chatting on the street corner – leaders, followers, and other signs of status differences nearly always emerge (along with more subtle roles such as “joker,” “hero,” and even “scapegoat”).

Gruenfeld and Tiedens conclude: “When scholars attempt to find an organization that is not characterized by hierarchy, they cannot.”

We can either note engage with this statement and just say they are wrong, we can try to find examples that show organizations which are not characterized by hierarchy (proving them wrong), or we can focus on making hierarchy something that works for us and not against us.

Hierarchy isn’t a straight jacket that someone else puts on us - but it seems to be a naturally occurring phenomenon in organizations. I want to better understand what aspects of hierarchy are bad, and how we can make hierarchy work for us. In fact, it is probably easier to reduce hierarchy in an organization like P2PU than it is in open source communities. I find it interesting that people are comfortable with very clear and high levels of hierarchy (“benevolent dictators”, “module owners”, etc.) when anyone can opt-in or leave at any time.

@Vanessa - If the Stanford researchers are right, you should be able to see hierarchies emerge from that network (also, to be fair, in this thread we have mostly been talking about organizations, which have a number of characteristics that are different from networks). It might be a question of representation.

@Dirk - I agree. Hierarchy is a type of structure. The Stanford researchers argue that it is the type of structure that is inevitable in organizations.

I think part of my disagreement about hierarchies is because I have a different definition of hierarchy.

I think the issues @1L2P raised are important things for us to discuss:

if everyone has full ownership, that also means ownership of generating income

I agree, and I think there are some oppurtunities from a technology perspective to get some funding, https://webwewant.org/2013-grant-funding-round/, Mozilla and maybe a few other? I’m very interested in finding more places for technology specific grants and working with community members to get grants relevant to technology for education.

But I also think being involved in sustainability doesn’t simply boil down to getting grants. We all need to be committed to delivering our part to satisfy requirements for grants/contracts and we need to keep the future in mind - not only our own interests.

A question I have about this: does bringing in money and authority/power go hand in hand. Part of it makes sense, but I don’t like the idea that someone else controls what I do because I’m not out there smooth talking on the gholf course (I’m not referring to how I feel about P2PU, unless @1L2P took up gholf).

knowing who makes which decisions when everyone has authority

I’m baised towards the open source idea of rough consensus and that the people who does the work get to make the decisions. I’m not sure if that is entirely workable when you are tied down to deliver certain things and there are actually a persons head on the chopping block (because of law requirements for non profits).

the difficulty of dealing with de facto hierarchies when they are not explicit

Does it need to be a hierarhy or can defined roles in projects be enough?

That’s correct, caring about sustainability also involves playing golf.

Rough consensus and pushing decisions to where they need to be made is a good model. One thing I would make explicit is that the people who end up making the decisions keep in mind the best interests of the org, and try to understand perspectives that may not be actively participating in the conversation. For example, if we have a funder who paid us to do something, then the decision-makers need to keep in mind that not delivering on the things we said we would, means we won’t get funded in the future. The funder may not be part of the discussion, but someone needs to represent their perspective.

Same thing. People with different roles in a project are just a different (longer) way of saying hierarchy.

The same way blue is a different way of saying purple, just shorter… I meant assigning roles in a non hierarchical way. Not A is the bos, B and C reports to A and D reports to C, because that would be an hierarchy.

I think hierarchy has morphed into meaning structure in this conversation. I don’t think structure is a bad thing and I would agree that structure is natural. I would also agree that all hierarchies are structures. I haven’t heard hierarchies to be described as being flexible, but I’ve hear about flexible structures.

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I think we’ve chewed on this enough and agree on the important bits -> we like flat structures, distributed decision-making, accountability to the team.

The intellectually interesting question we might disagree on, is: are hierarchies inevitable? By hierarchy I mean that some people have the power to make decisions and others don’t; some people get to set direction and others don’t. In open source communities, you have extremely clear hierarchies. And even in organizations that remove titles, not everyone gets to make every decision. It doesn’t matter if hierarchies are explicit or implicit, they do exist.

Since you said it’s an “intellectually interesting question”, I’m asuming we can continue to discus :slight_smile:

But everyone in an open source community is empowered to upend that hierarchy if they are unhappy with either the hierarchy or the resulting work of the hierarchy. And it happened with a few big projects - LibreOffice & Inkscape that I can think of now. That is clearly not:

People may opt-out (which is different form upend) but the new projects quickly develop the same hierarchies, just with other people filling the positions. This would support the basic argument that hierarchy is emergent and inevitable.

Forking is also very “costly” and there are very few successful examples. If open source developers had a major issue with hierarchy, you would expect forking to be much more commonplace.

I think the key to understanding hierarchy in open source is not that you can fork, but that you can walk away. People are happy with high levels of hierarchy as long as they can choose to not participate at all.

Sorry, but I don’t completely agree with this. Lets take the linux kernel as an example - Linus is the benevolent dictator of the project. Under him is the sub system maintainers. And under them are the code comitters with varying levels of status and involvement.

This is clearly a hierarchy right -> sub system maintainers get to decide what goes in and Linus has the final say.

But that is not looking at the whole picture and the purpose of the linux kernel.

There are many examples of complete kernels or repositories of patches that are being used and maintained. They are being used and developed by companies like Google, Amazon, etc. Linus has no say in whether they develop, use and maintain them or not. The only thing they can’t do is say they are releasing it as the official linux kernel - Linus has trademark rights on linux and because of that gets to choose what to release under his trademark.

Also, Linus doesn’t specify what to work on. That is determined by individuals or companies based on their own interest.

I don’t know exactly what it takes to become a sub system maintainer, but I have a strong suspicion that it is a lot about taking ownership.

The natural ecosystem around the linux kernel doesn’t feel hierarchical to me.

That is correct. But each one of them will have a hierarchy of people who make decisions at different levels. In the same way that the linux kernel project has a hierarchy of maintainers, these organizations all have different hierarchies to manage their kernel projects.

Your example shows that people can leave a hierarchy if they want - but that doesn’t mean hierarchy itself disappears. It just gets re-created somewhere else.

It feels a bit like you are saying every graph is ultimately a hierarchy, no?

No. I am saying (and I am really just agreeing with the researchers I cited above) that every form of human organization will display hierarchy, which I understand as different levels of ability or authority to make decisions.

I don’t know much about graph theory, but from Wikipedia “A graph is a representation of a set of objects where some pairs of objects are connected by links” - it sounds like graphs can describe many things, not just human organization, and could have no hierarchy.

I am loving this thread. Haven’t visited it for a bit and man it’s being powering along!

@dirk if I understand you you’re arguing:

  1. that hierarchies aren’t nearly as universal as @1L2P and the research cited suggest
  2. that open source communities are good examples of non-hierarchical organisations, because - while there are bosses and reporting structures - anyone is free to ‘upend’ the system (ie community can overthrow/ignore the boss, if you like) at any time

It feels like you’re stretching, to make the case that open-source communities are non-hierarchical, when their clearly are contributors whose voice carries more weight (ie can override) others, and/or who act as gatekeepers on projects.

To say the community can revolt and change it up at any time is not unique to open-source style communities - anyone can walk away from their boss at any time and start again elsewhere, or indeed can rally enough of the rest of the community (ie company) that they might be able to get the boss fired/demoted. No diff to mobilising open source community to remove/ignore a hated admin/superuser/whatever surely?

Anyway, I shouldn’t get hung up on debating the specific example - back to the general.

It feels your main concern is with the idea of authority over others - we agree everyone can play diff roles in team, everyone can make some of the decisions, people will naturally defer in some instances to others better placed/suited to decide particular issues, but the sticking point is when someone else will make a decision for me about my own affairs/area of interest/workload, that I have no say in.

But I wonder if it’s ever truly that black and white? To say ‘in this emergent-community-heirarchy I can always push back against authority’ but ‘in this corporate-traditional-heirarchy I have no say over my bosses’ is to artificially separate two alternatives that actually aren’t that different?

Arguably in either case you always have options to push back, and while one may look ‘‘freer’’ than the other, in fact the emergent-community-heirarchy can be just as rigid a straight jacket as the worst corporate hierarchy. (imagine coming late to a long established open source community with clear kings and queens - how realistic is it to say I can do what I want in that community without regard for their wishes?)

Doesn’t it just boil down to saying you want an hierarchy you believe in / agree with, not one you resent? Arguably any hierarchy you participate in you have tacitly agreed to support (and I agree with others that every community has an hierarchy), so really you’ve just got to find/build/encourage one you like - ie one you’re content to surrender authority to on certain matters.

…which brings us full circle to the original concept of distributed decision making - where I think we’re all agreed we can distribute it to some extent (alongside responsibility for consequences, sustainability, etc). But the natural order of things means there probably will be voices that are respected more than others - just hopefully coz they’ve proved their worth over time than coz appointed arbitrarily (tho one hopes that describes a traditional corp structure too :)). The concept of a truly heirarchy-less group of more than 1 person I find very difficult (actually impossible) to imagine…

I’m a little late to the party but the way I see it, hierarchies are part of human nature.
Even between two best friends, there is always one person who is slightly more dominant in the relationship than the other. Whether it is defined outright or forms naturally, it’s just how people operate.

Came over this article last week: http://www.bopsecrets.org/CF/structurelessness.htm - a really good read about informal structures and relevant to the conversation