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The History of Hierarchies

For 95 percent of the 200,000 years modern humans have walked the earth, there was no such thing as a hierarchy. We lived in small bands of hunter-gatherers consisting of a few dozen people at most, and there is evidence to suggest that there was little formal leadership or structure and no ‘alpha males’, the likes of which can be observed among our cousins, the chimpanzees. Any attempt to become the ‘alpha’ of the group was collectively suppressed by the other members of the group. Bands were self-organising, effortlessly collaborative, and small enough such that everyone could have a personal relationship with everyone else. Trust was high, and people looked out for one another. While conflict did still occur, on the whole, these were highly effective societies, and the human brain is perfectly evolved for this kind of existence.

Then, around 10,000 years ago, with the advent of agriculture, small farming villages of a few hundred people started to emerge. As people filled the land, villages came into conflict with each other. More than anything else, warfare created an imperative to organise centrally through hierarchies. This was because the ability to organise and coordinate soldiers greatly improved their effectiveness. A properly led army, with a good strategy, could easily defeat more skilled warriors who fought individually or in small bands. They proved more effective in battle than those with no formal organisation, strategy, or training. Size, too, began to matter. There is a French military saying that “God is on the side of big battalions”. In the age of warfare, more hierarchical societies outcompeted less-centralised ones overall. 

The first formally centralised societies began to emerge a mere 7,500 years ago in Mesopotamia. These simple chiefdoms consisted of a few thousand people. Gone were the personal connections and high levels of cooperation and trust. Instead, there were rules and the use of force. As warfare became increasingly important, weapons production and standing armies started to emerge, all supported by hierarchy.

Over the last 10,0000 years – a mere blink of an eye in evolutionary terms – humans have moved from small, foraging bands to centralised nation-states consisting of hundreds of millions of people. From the Catholic Church to the Roman Empire to Max Weber’s twentieth-century bureaucratic management structure, we are now living in a system to which our brains are entirely maladapted. And yet, as soon as any society or organisation grows beyond a few dozen people, the hierarchical pyramid is seen as the only option. How else could large numbers of people possibly be mobilised to pull together toward a common goal?

The unquestioning use of centralised hierarchies in organisations is a hangover from the Second Industrial Revolution of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This was a time when the advent of electricity, the internal combustion engine, and the telephone transformed the energy, transportation, and communications sectors, respectively, and enabled the growth of the enormous organisations we see today. Hierarchies worked well during this time of relative stability, a time when efficiently exploiting existing business models was the path to great commercial success. Today, however, the world is a different place. Sky-high levels of VUCA – volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity – mean that organisations must now structure themselves for agility, not efficiency. They must embrace innovation and the continual reinvention of their products, services, and business models. Today, we must continue to exploit but also master the art of exploring. The hierarchy must give way to the interconnected network. This builds on our evolutionary past as a self-organising, collaborative species that thrives on connection and emergent leadership rather than on the efforts of an army of formal managers.

We do our best creative knowledge work when in autonomous, cross-functional, high-trust teams working toward a common vision. Teams can easily collaborate with other teams, customers, and leaders as part of a wider network structure – a team-of-teams, if you will. This approach leads to more creative, more adaptive teams, which are better suited to both our ancestral past and the fast-paced, complex business climate of the 21st century. 

When it comes to agility, hierarchy is now holding us back. It’s time to think and act differently.