Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Hierarchy or Anarchy? - A false dichotomy!

"We need a hierarchy, otherwise there would be anarchy!" - have you heard this claim, or similar claims? How can an organization function without a hierarchy? We have been taught from an early childhood to believe that the absence of hierarchy leads to anarchy, which - in turn, is utter chaos and it's impossible to achieve anything. Is that true? Having experienced a different model, I claim: No. The absence of hierarchy is not necessarily anarchy. Let me explain ...

Hierarchy - the need for prescription

A classic example of a hierarchy

What is hierarchy? Based on the original meaning of the word, it means "sacred order" - or, an order that must be maintained at all costs. A hierarchy is implicitly optimized to remain a hierarchy. This is about status, but also about achievement.

In a hierarchy, the highest person defines the goals for the entire organization. With their direct subordinates, they extract subgoals for those people - and so on. Everyone contributes to the common goal by following the prescibed personal goal and making those below them achieve their goals. The hierarchy would fail to achieve it's overall goal if anyone would deviate from their prescribed goal.

The main purpose of leaders in a hierarchy is to ensure goal alignment and goal achievement within their sphere of control.

Without this kind of prescription, the hierarchy would achieve nothing.

Anarchy - the absence of structure

Let's look at the alternative to hierarchy: anarchy.
Anarchy: The nightmare of every manager
What is anarchy? Based on the original meaning, it means "no order" - or, the absence of order. Anarchy is a highly unstable condition and implies local optimization. Achievement in an anarchy depends only on the individual.

In anarchy, everyone has their own goals and pursues them as they see fit. The outcome of an anarchy depends on the outcome of the individual. There may be common goals or common directions, but they don't mean anything. Failure to achieve personal goals doesn't affect others, so the (not existing) organization in anarchy is unaffected by individual failure or changes to individual goals.

In an anarchy, there is no leadership and no control. Goals are not aligned, achieving a goal depends on the individual alone.

Is that what we have to choose between? If it were so, human society could indeed not function without hierarchy.
But wait ... this is the false dichotomy. There is an alternative:

Holarchy - Integral parts of the Whole

In a holarchy, there is no "up and down" and no permanent structure.
Holarchy is a different model. The term means "The part and the whole are the order" - or: the order is implicit rather than explicit.

What is holarchy? It's quite difficult to understand if you haven't seen it in action. At first glance, the self-similar (fractal) structure may be considered a hierarchy, but it isn't. In a holarchy, there is nobody giving orders. There is also nobody listening to orders, and yet, people pursue a common goal. Nobody prescribes that goal, they take the goal and align around it.
A holarchy is much more effective than a hierarchy, because nobody wastes time defining goals for others and checking their accomplishment - everyone is fully focused on achieving the one, common goal.
People are not "managed" to achieve a pre-defined objective that partially contributes to an organizational goal, much rather they find others around them with whom they are better at achieving their common goal: people with whom they can share labour to achieve something better, something more, something higher than they could alone.

As activities and focus change and steps are accomplished, people's collaboration circles (holons) change dynamically. Every holon is transient and people may be part of more than one holon. Holons themselves may be part of holons. It all depends on what makes sense.

In a holarchy, leadership is different - it's as transient as the holons themselves. Holons aren't "managed", yet there are people forming holons and keeping them together, helping them move forward and joining them with one another. These people are leaders. They have no title and you may not even recognize them.


Holarchies avoid the problems of anarchy and solve the problems that are endemic to a hierarchy, making them a viable alternative to both. They have other problems, but that's a different story to be told at another time.


  1. Command/Control and its associated hierarchy are a two-class religion - with a ruling class and modern slavery beneath it. Self-managed teams are simply a single-class religion, with simplified strategic direction-setting hierarchy.

  2. Michael, when you say Holarchy do you mean Holocracy? The picture with the circles reminds me a little bit of that...


    1. It's not the same.
      Holacracy, at least as defined by HolacracyOne, is a terrible mess of defining roles and interfaces for every function. It's using humans as if they were a piece of software to be structured and written in the most detailed manner.

      Holarchy is the natural, informal interaction between individuals, groups and larger bodies irrespective of any formalities. It isn't concerned with specific roles or functions, but with discovering and accomplishing mutual goals.
      Technically, a holarchy doesn't need formal rules (like the Holacracy constitution) because the "real rules" are often informal and subconsciously defined by what makes sense in order to get closer to a common goal, which also makes them situational and transient: By the time we'd have them formalized in a Holacracy, they would be obsolete.

      Aside from that, the terminology already differs:
      Holacracy = Holos-kratos (κρατία)= The power is with the the whole
      Holarchy = Holos-archon (ἄρχων) = The part and the whole are both the first (i.e., they are equal)

      The very question of "power" is irrelevant in a functioning holarchy, whereas a so-called "fair distribution of power" is the key premise if a holacracy.

      As an interesting side note from experience: in a holarchy, it's really difficult to discover what the rules even are, as people just do what makes sense - whereas a holarchy has clearly defined "rule making structures" with binding regulations.

  3. This is the best and the brightest idea I ever found in entire Internet! Thank you Michael - you are GENIUS