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Well, I don't think hierarchy is prima facie evil. Conceptual hierarchy is how people think. The problem with human organizations (and "managers" and the bad rap they get) is that hierarchies are easy to corrupt by aiming at the top, and that they usually promote the wrong people-- social climbers instead of leaders.

Managers get a bad rap, but good managers (possibly 10-20%) are worth their weight in gold. Bad managers are disastrous. No managers is rarely an option. "Flat" organizations tend to devolve into young-wolf conflicts and evolve their own unofficial hierarchies. In fact, young wolves are more dangerous than managers; because young wolves' positions of influence are unofficial and therefore unsafe, those around them are direct competitors and they have more incentive to attack. Managers rarely sabotage their own reports, because they have the safety of being a level or two higher. Young wolves frequently do this to people who are technically same-level but haven't been around as long or had as much of an opportunity to establish themselves, but whom they perceive as long-term threats. If nothing else, you need good managers in place to prevent young-wolf conflicts.

The problem with traditional management, though, is that people promotions are pull-based (i.e. people get promoted by conning the top guys) rather than push-driven from below. The result is that people get promoted based on social climbing rather than real leadership, and managerial incompetence sets in very quickly.

I'd get rid of "performance" reviews. The word is loaded, and most workplace conflicts have nothing to do with performance. I've worked in elite companies, so this observation may be unusual, but I've seen maybe 20 people get fired in my career, and only one was for performance. The others were personality conflicts or other reasons. Dressing these issues up as "performance" issues just makes everyone angry.

Instead of reviewing "performance", which is code for "dressing up how I like you as something more objective", there should be a review along two axes: Skill and Impact, which are much more objective. I came up with a half-decent (IMO) scale for assessing software engineering skill here: http://michaelochurch.wordpress.com/2012/01/26/the-trajector... . The difference between 1.5 and 1.6 may be hard to assess, but that between a 1.5 and 1.8 is pretty much objectively visible.

Here's the kicker: these numbers are public. It shouldn't be "sensitive". Management ought to have the balls to say, "we think this person has Skill 1.7 and Impact 1.8 and here's why." What is kept private are reviews more than 12 months old, so that peoples' trends aren't visible for everyone to see. The other thing that deserves to be private (because it is somewhat sensitive) is assessment of a person's potential, but that's not what formal reviews are for. That should be handled informally, in any case.

Ok, now as for how the reviews occur... as I said, the problem with traditional management is that selection occurs on a "pull" rather than "push" basis. So instead of people having "managers", they choose sponsors who are typically more senior (although at the very top levels where "more senior" is hard to find, peers will do). Sponsors keep track of their reports' growth and advocate for them during the review process. The difference is that a sponsor relationship can be terminated at any time, by either side, without requiring anyone to exit the company, and that an employee can (and should) have 2-3 sponsors.

This system allows people to "vote with their feet". If someone's not a good sponsor, people move away from him.

What happens if someone has no sponsor? If you have no sponsor, you go before upper management yourself during review time. You advocate for yourself. If you can effectively communicate what you have done and what you will do, then you may advance. If you can't, you'll stagnate. (The purpose of the sponsor is to be an intermediate advocate with a better understanding of what the company and its management value, but there's no reason a person can't be allowed to advocate for himself.) Of course, if someone can't get a sponsor for a period of months, that's a sign that this person might need to leave.




It's also worth noting that heirarchy, at least in principle, is a very efficient method of communication.

A true peer-to-peer system of n people has a communications graph which is a K_n (complete graph on n nodes). Each node must monitor communications from n people, and there are O(n^2) edges. That can't scale. But for small n it isn't bad - the distance between two nodes is 1.

A tree has n-1 edges, and most nodes only need to communicate with 3 other nodes. The distance between 2 nodes is log(n) so communication costs aren't disastrous.

We love trees in computer science, the only reason we don't love them in management is because our personal experience leads us to compare O(1) communication costs (in a K_n) with log(n) communication costs (in a tree).


Peer-to-peer is only O(n^2) if every node is always connected to every other node. But Valve's organization seems to work by creating much smaller sub-networks on an ad-hoc basis, so that at any given instant, each node is only actually connected to a small set of other nodes. Instead of a hierarchical system which would have each sub-network be permanently defined with clear boundaries, and create a network-of-networks to coordinate them, this method ensures coordination among the sub-networks by relying on most nodes being a part of multiple sub-networks and having a slightly different set of connections, such that there's an overall mesh that does actually connect every node in the graph, directly or indirectly.

Sort of the way torrents work, in fact: there's a pool of seeds and peers - which might have thousands of members - but your client is only exchanging data with maybe a few dozen at any given time. But since each peer has its own slightly different set of connections, data anywhere in the system can still propagate to the entire system.

I suppose it would be an interesting problem to figure out, given n nodes, with each node having a minimum of x and a maximum of y edges per node, and a maximum of z edges per path, what the minumum total set of edges would be to ensure that there exists a path between any two nodes.

I think a flat hierarchy necessitates 'adhocracy', but from a cultural and operational standpoint, I'd expect them to mutually reinforce each other quite well.


There are efficient network structures that are not hierarchical and are not trees. Trees have horrible single point of failure characteristics, where one bad node kills an entire branch.


To be fair, they also have the opposite quality wherein one great person can positively affect an entire tree. Many great companies have been built by a great leader positively affecting hundreds or thousands of people.


Well said, because SPOF is the precise problem with managerial hierarchies.


Does a young wolf always create conflict? For example, it is possible to avoid conflict and form a lot of influence by playing kingmaker. You do not need to sabotage others of similar technical abilities to you by attacking them directly, you can instead heavily exert yourself in producing massive value to their competitors. This is more stable as it's without conflict. It is the silent death to those that compete with you individually, and a way of finding allies.

Is that a young wolf, a social climber or a sponsor?


That's the way that things work in many political organizations like party committees.If you have the power to create kings, you have the power to destroy a king.

The key to any of this "flat organization" stuff is to keep the organization small enough that you can either keep out nasty personalities, or prevent them from burrowing into the org.




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