Work with (not against) your hiearchy

Becoming a master of organizational jujutsu

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One of the most difficult questions I get about open organizations comes from readers working at large companies with deep, rich histories. "I understand how you grew your culture at Red Hat," they tell me, "and I understand how open source communities can function the way you describe, but I work in a place with an entirely different structure and culture. How do I begin to catalyze the kinds of change you're describing?"

Recently I confronted the question yet again, when a senior executive from a global industrial company met with me to talk about ways she might open her organization. "We're really trying to change our culture and become more agile," she told me, "but we're trying to do this in the face of hundreds of years of entrenched tradition." She was looking for a way to fight against that tradition.

And that's a common assumption: People think that mitigating the effects of hierarchy requires working against it. But that's not the case.

Instead, you've got to learn to work with it.

Think about jujutsu, the martial art that specializes in turning opponents' strengths to your advantage. Jujutsu experts excel at disarming opponents much stronger than they are because they learn to channel others' energies in beneficial directions. (Full disclosure: I don't practice jujutsu, but my executive coach does—and he's always more than happy to pass along its lessons to me.) Done well, a timely jujutsu maneuver can flip a body's momentum against itself.

Strongly rooted, hierarchical structures demonstrate a good deal of momentum. They're difficult to counteract. But since writing The Open Organization, I've been thinking about ways leaders might actually use that momentum to spark change.

Proponents of the open organizational model are quick to note hierarchies' shortcomings: Hierarchies are resistant to change. They're often brittle. They don't cope well with outside forces. And they don't really foster collaboration, so they innovate slowly.

But consider their strengths: They're extremely effective at driving efficiency and, once in place, require relatively little upkeep. They make sites of organizational power and influence abundantly clear, and they offer obvious (if rather inflexible) routes for information to travel along organizational lines.

So how might you perform a bit of jujutsu on a hierarchy in order use those strengths to ultimately dismantle the hierarchy? How do you channel a hierarchy's energies to actually cultivate the conditions for openness?

I can think of two ways.

The first is something I attempted with my team at Delta Air Lines. We wanted to increase engagement—to more tightly connect associates to the organization's mission so they felt like they were playing an active and important role in furthering it (a crucial component of open organizations). So we initiated an ongoing survey of everyone in the company. It asked people to respond to the following statement: "I know the company's strategy, and I know what my department can do to make it successful." And by tracking the results by area, we made managers—and their managers' managers—responsible for their teams' responses. Hierarchies excel at driving specific metrics to further their own interests, so we leveraged Delta's hierarchy to point attention to the critical issue of engagement, and we utilized our bureaucracy's strengths to really measure how effective everyone had become at generating that engagement around the company's mission. While we didn't take it quite this far at Delta, imagine what would happen if your response to that prompt determined the size of your manager's bonus?

Here's a second idea: Use hierarchies' strict and clearly-defined chains of command to increase your organization's overall responsiveness. Imagine a company-wide meeting at which you tell all associates: "We need and want your feedback, so you should feel free to email your manager and you should expect to receive a response, after a reasonable period of time, after doing so. And if you don't get one, email me." You've just committed managers to being more responsive to their employees; they'll know that if they don't respond, then their associates' questions are going to move straight up the hierarchy. I tried this once. As you'd expect, the volume of email I received on a daily basis initially increased—dramatically. But almost as quickly as it spiked, the number of incoming messages dwindled. Apparently, people grew tired of my stopping by their offices to ask them why they hadn't responded to the notes they were receiving.

In both cases, my team tried to take the strengths of a rule-following, order-taking, command-and-control system and use them to actually further the interests of the open organization.

Just call it a bit of organizational jujutsu.

About the author

Jim Whitehurst - Jim Whitehurst is President and Chief Executive Officer of Red Hat, the world’s leading provider of open source enterprise IT products and services. With a background in business development, finance, and global operations, Whitehurst has proven expertise in helping companies flourish—even in the most challenging economic and business environments. Since joining Red Hat in 2008, Whitehurst has grown the company, and its influence on a variety of industries, by reaching key milestones—the most...