Kill the Hierarchy! - High Collaboration

Transitioning People Through Constant Change

This post in the series “Kill the Hierarchy” I explore how a flatter organisational structure enables increased collaboration across the entire organisation. Without high levels of collaboration the organisation will not survive in a world of rapid and constant change with many unplanned deviations in direction. A flatter hierarchy will be needed to achieve this.

For an organisation to survive and thrive in a world of constant and uncertain change, the organisation has to be one in which leadership is important, but MORE important is a collaborative workplace in which transparency and creative freedom reign over hierarchical boundaries. This enables innovation, creativity, experimentation, rapid decision-making, agility and employee ownership, engagement and influence. There is widespread autonomy and everyone leads.

No one ever did anything awesome or great just because they were told to!

The ‘Kill the Hierarchy’ model shown the diagram below, illustrates the changes needed to move to a flatter structure, and it is these changes that we shall be exploring in this series of posts.


Structure can hamper collaboration

In a hierarchical organisation, employees tend not to be engaged or committed to the work they do. There is limited collaboration.

More and more organisations are recognising that their structure is hampering effective collaboration. Its hierarchical and siloed structure obstructs cross-functional working, collective problem solving and decision-making located where best suited, and effective communication to support dynamic collaboration.

The level of autonomy and collaboration within the workforce is determined by the organisational structure.

Therefore it is critical that organisations not only realise this but also take constructive actions to breakdown the hierarchy.

You don't have to be a W.L. Gore, Zappos, Valve, Basecamp (formerly 37signals) or Pixar but you do need to be moving in that direction. These organisations have structures that foster high levels of collaboration.

What is collaboration?

It may seem obvious to some but not necessarily to all, collaboration is not just another word for teamwork.

Teamwork is when two or more people come together to complete a task.

Collaboration is teamwork plus. Collaboration has these attributes.

Brainstorming – ‘putting our heads together’ to challenge the status quo, and offer alternative thoughts and ideas. Teams can be given a pre-defined solution to deliver. When teams brainstorm they can challenge the pre-defined solution and instead address the problem or opportunity that needs to be solved. The outcome may be very different when employees collaborate rather than engage in just teamwork. Collaboration means active interaction and debate.

De-label – this means ‘leave your title at the door’. When we truly collaborate, everyone is equal. Ideas are encouraged from everyone regardless of their position within the organisation. Titles do not mean your ideas are considered less worthy of discussion or more important. Trust and respect are the foundation of effective collaboration.

Shared sense of purpose – when employees truly collaborate they see the value of working together. Working together is not forced upon them. They collaborate willingly and gladly. They see the benefit of collaboration not only for themselves but also for the organisation as a whole.



So why do we need high levels of collaboration?

There are many benefits arising from high-levels of collaboration.

A UNC white paper (2014) by Kip Kelly, Director UNC Executive Development, said:

“Collaboration can re-invigorate organizations by fully engaging employees, improving retention, and increasing motivation. It can help employees thrive in an every-changing, diverse workplace.”

The paper lists the sustained benefits of organisation-wide collaboration as:

  • Fully engaged workers who are eager to take on new projects and challenges and who embrace change.
  • Improved organizational flexibility and agility.
  • Improved employee health, wellness, and performance.
  • More productive and energized meetings.
  • Extremely high retention rates.
  • A competitive advantage when attracting top talent.
  • The ability to develop and bring products faster to the market.
  • Increased top-line revenue and better profitability.

Every organisation, that wants to survive and thrive in a world of rapid and disruptive change, needs to acquire these outcomes. Collaboration will bring these benefits.


An organisational structure model, with connection and collaboration at its core, is Wirearchy.

In 2015, Jon Husband, compiled the book “Wirearchy - Sketches for the Future of Work”. The book has many contributors who propose that Wirearchy is the alternative to hierarchy if we want to meet the needs of our world today.


Jon defines Wirearchy as follows:

“Wirearchy is about the power and effectiveness of people working together through connection and collaboration, taking responsibility individually and collectively rather than relying on traditional hierarchical status”.
“Wirearchy is an emergent organising principle that informs the ways that purposeful human activities and the structures in which they are contained are evolving from top-down direction and supervision (hierarchy’s command-and-control) to champion-and- channel. That is, the championing of ideas and innovation, and the channelling of time, energy, authority, and resources to testing those ideas and the possibilities for innovation they carry”.

I do not profess to be an expert in organisational design but I suspect, as with any model, it could work for some and not for others. However, there are elements of the model that underpin effective collaboration that should be afforded attention.

The are four core elements to Wirearchy do just that – knowledge, trust, credibility, and a focus on results.

So what would you need to do in a Wirearchy organisation?

As a leader - be prepared to listen deeply, be responsible, be accountable and be transparent.

As a manager - learn how to be an effective listener and coach.

As an employee - develop a clear understanding of how to be both empowered and valuable and of service.

What I liked about Wirearchy is that it:

a)    Supports the notion that a hierarchical structure will not support an organisation looking to thrive in today’s disruptive world. To quote Jon: “One thing now seems clear. Adapt now or adapt later, but adapt you will have to”.

b)    Stresses the need for people to connect and collaborate in order to innovate and innovation is now key to organisational success.

c)    Is about letting people get on with achieving outcomes in their own way, which will surface new ways of addressing problems, issues and opportunities.

d)    Talks about the “furthest possible distribution of all authority” which to me means autonomy and distributed decision-making. An organisation in which everyone can initiate and drive change.

e)    Acknowledges we need both collaboration and cooperation if we want to generate social and economic value

f)      Emphasises the need for active listening, accountability, transparency, and empowerment

All of these attributes are fundamental in my ‘Kill the Hierarchy’ model. It doesn't matter whether it is Wirearchy or Holacracy that you aspire to, it is a shift that is needed to remove the inertia that comes with hierarchy. In a world of rapid and constant change, inertia is your enemy,


Remember, one model does not fit all, so select the parts from all the models available that will enable your organisation to become responsive to rapid change and cultivate an environment of collaboration.

In short

Collaboration is not new but its also not commonly used organisation-wide and adopted as a shared and collective way of working. It is often seen as a one-off activity.

Organisations that have high levels of collaboration will reap the benefits outlined in this post. Those that don't will lag behind, lose business and be unable to attract the talent that they need.

 Coming up!

Upcoming posts in this series entitled ‘Kill the Hierarchy’ will continue to explore how we flatten the hierarchy in order to achieve rapid and decentralised decision-making, employee engagement, high levels of collaboration, widespread autonomy, trust and respect, and an environment in which everyone leads.


More posts on their way over the coming weeks and months, exploring how we need to take a fresh and radical look at organisational change management, and the changes we need to make if we are to thrive.

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 Also remember that older posts from me are available via the Resources section.


Karen FerrisComment