Hierarchy and Efficiency

McKinsey & Company’s patron saint Marvin Bower once commented, “The thing about hierarchy is that it works.” Bower was not celebrating hierarchy; rather, he was initiating a dialogue about it. He began by echoing the deep-seated claim about hiearchy’s relationship to efficiency — particularly decision-making efficiency. In hierarchies, decisions can be made quicker and with less cost, time and trouble. Hence, the claim of efficiency.

Consider the following situation. You are the pitching coach for a major league baseball team. You’ve seen and worked with your star pitcher for years. You know that when the pitcher tires, he drops his arm during his delivery — leading to a loss of control. It’s the seventh inning of a tight game. The pitcher has put in a lot of effort — he’s tired and he has begun to drop his arm. You call time out and visit the mound. Do you:

A) Engage the pitcher in an open-ended problem solving session aimed at gathering information, brainstorming and debating a variety of solutions and then reaching consensus on what to do next; or,
B) Tell him he’s tiring and must get his arm up?

Most of us pick “B”. We pick hierarchy because it is the faster, most cost-and-time effective decision-making process in this situation. It is efficient. And, it’s effective –whether the pitcher can overcome his tiredness and get through the inning or not because, even in the latter case, it means a quick return trip to the mound and a call to the bullpen.

Note some nuance here. Both pitcher and pitching coach recognize the legitimacy of their hierarchical relationship within the context of the baseball team. The situation does not allow for long winded debate (baseball rules require that umpires resume play within well understood time limits). And, also note that the pitching coach provides information (“You’re tiring”) in addition to command (“Get your arm up!”)

Marvin Bower was also commenting on habit. Folks who work in hierarchical organizations get used to hierarchy. Like the pitcher, there’s a prevailing pattern of acceptance — when a boss makes a choice, those who report to the boss listen. This was key to Bower’s comment that ‘Hierarchy works.”

We also know from the evolutionary psychologists that human kind has thousands of years of behavioral experience with hierarchy imprinted into our DNA that reinforces leanings toward accepting the authority of hierarchical decision-making.

So, does all this mean ‘hierarchy is efficient’ is a truism?

Of course not.

Bower was actually getting at this — only subtly and through dialogue: ‘The thing about hiearchy is that people in organizations are habitually inclined to use it and that’s fine if the situation fits the hiearchical approach. But not all situations do. So, we are left with the reality that hiearchy works — sometimes…. but our instincts and experiences cause us to lean toward it most of the time.”

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