Hierarchies And Networks And Which Are Better When


Thursday, 8.17pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Power is changing hands, from dying hierarchies to living networks. – Marilyn Ferguson

Matthew Syed’s book Rebel ideas: The power of diverse thinking reminded me of the work of Jordan Peterson, who popped up on the occasional YouTube video. Peterson is a “man’s man” sort of character – and what I caught from these brief videos was a sense of a “no punches pulled” character with strong opinions. It turns out that his views may be on the extreme side and perhaps wrong as well as dangerous, but let’s leave that aside and focus on one particular idea.

Peter suggests that dominance hierarchies are a feature of groups and go back hundreds of millions of years – lobster’s brains are wired in this way. I wrote about this previously here and we still examples of this in many aspects of our lives. The military is organized this way, some companies are too. Many public sector institutions have a hierarchy at their core.

Or do they?

It’s one thing looking at animals and saying the big, strong ones have all the fun – they get to lord over their territory and have their pick of mates. This idea of social structure leads to a “command and control” approach and is the sort of thing that comes to mind when we think of many social situations, and is not helped by stereotypes in the media and popular culture.

It’s also a particularly male point of view. Syed points out that when you really look at animal populations this idea of males being in charge starts to break down. Females have more choice than you think. Groups can be led by matriarchs rather than bulls. It turns out that things aren’t quite that simple.

Syed points to anthropological research that found that there is another kind of structure based on what he calls prestige. This is about connections, about the web of relationships one has.

A hierarchy works in many cases – when you have a clear objective, when you’re trying to fight a battle, when it’s important to get on with a task than argue about who gets to lead. But in a much larger number of cases we have to get on with daily life and sort out the things that need to get done.

It turns out that we can do this better when we harness the collective intelligence of groups. There’s a romantic notion that great ideas come from lone geniuses. In fact the vast majority of ideas come from teams that work in societies where they can share and access ideas.

There’s a special case of harnessing collective intelligence that has to do with day to day work. Every time you have a meeting, work on a project, get a team together – you have to make choices about who to include or exclude, who to talk to and who to ignore. They way in which you do this will determine whether you end up with a homogeneous group that has the same sort of ideas or a mixed group that can be creative and contribute something new.

But how do you get different people to get involved and participate – won’t it end up being lots of people arguing because they don’t really understand one another?

That’s where the concept of “procedural justice” plays an important role. You have to design a method of engagement that makes people feel like they have been included, allowed to speak and been listened to – been heard. This is when they will have trust that the process works for them.

Hierarchies are simple, but they may also be a thing of the past. The future needs us to understand one another, not dominate one another.


Karthik Suresh

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