A Better Understanding of Hierarchy in Self-Organisation

A Better Understanding of Hierarchy in Self-Organisation

2019, Aug 16    

Over the last months I was confronted with a lot of misconceptions regarding self-organisation and how hierarchy intertwines. With this post, I try to clear some things up and show how these two concepts actually work together in terms of emerging and contextual hierarchy.

Benefits of Self-Organisation

Since the rise of agile practices for teams within software development and IT departments, self-organisation has proven to have a lot of benefits for an organisation:

It reduces management complexity, by putting decisions into the hands of teams, leading to reduced workload and cognitive effort for managers, who previously were used to plan out and handle all the daily doings of their direct reports.

In regards to teams and people, self-organisation increases the motivation, and thereby retention, of employees, as it gives them autonomy over their work, their time schedule as well as their way of doing things. This autonomy was found to be a main driver for trust, motivation and psychological safety, supported by scientific studies of people like David Rock with the SCARF Model1 or Barbara Frederickson’s Broaden and Build Theory2.

In terms of quality and speed of work, self-organisation works as catalyst. By employing self-organised teams and people, they are empowered to make decisions within their scope and that leads to shorter decision times. Furthermore, decisions made by self-organising teams are often more accurate, as they are taken based on first-hand knowledge on a given situation or subject. On other words: authority is put into the hands of those people, who know best about the matter.

Common Misconceptions

Although it has been around and in use quite a while, when you start out to introduce the concept of self-organisation within a company, team or department, it is astonishing that you almost always come across the same set of deep-rooted misconceptions:+

  1. A self-organised team has to decide and resolve everything on their own
  2. When I allow self-organisation, I can’t tell the team what to do anymore
  3. When a self-organised team made a decision, only the team itself can revoke it

None of these are true, of course. I found, that believes like this are related to the way we commonly think about hierarchy, and how this thinking was primed throughout our life:

Most of us still see self-organisation and hierarchy as two opposed concepts. Thus, we conclude, that a self-organising team, having the authority and ability to take decisions, must not have any internal or external hierarchy. Especially those of us, who are very familiar with other concepts of agile working, became inclined to set the term hierarchy on par with command and control structures.

Clearing Up the Term

One thing that complicates our understanding of the relation between self-organisation and hierarchy is the fuzzy language we use. The term self-organisation itself is not very well defined. Instead of making it more understandable and less fuzzy, I’d like to get rid of the term self-organisation per se, and replace it with the language used in Hackman’s Authority Matrix3.

a matrix displaying the relation of team responsibility vs. management responsibility

Taking the matrix into account in order to understand how hierarchy relates to self-organisation shows two things for me: Depending on the level of authority a team has, there are different skills required within the team and that the authority a team gets is depending on the context that the team acts in. The more abilities are attributed to a team, the more decisions it can take, as its authority level raises.

So, in order to be more precise in using the term, let’s try to avoid talking about fuzzy self-organisation and use the more precise terms of manager-led, self-managing, self-designing and self-governing first.

Contextual Hierarchy

Inspired by Richard Hackman, lets expand on the concept of different authority levels in self-organisation a bit more. As Hackman’s matrix clearly shows, self-organisation is not a binary thing, but unfortunately, for the context of this article, he focussed only on decisions that are typically addressed from a management point of view.

I think, that we can legitimately put the same approach into a different context. For example, lets use it to describe different levels of authority in the space of product design:

adapted authority matrix to show different levels of product design decisions

While my illustration of the matrix may not be perfect, I hope it illustrates my point: We can expand this concept into any area. So, a self-organising team will express different levels of ability to self-organise depending on the context we observe. It may be self-designing in regards to the team composition and method of working, but may be manager-led in terms of product design and self-governing in terms of technical implementation.

Putting self-organisation into context leads to a more complex picture of hierarchy. Whenever self-organisation comes into play it changes the way we have to think about hierarchical systems: There is not a one-dimensional relation of a manager, who leads, and a team that is lead. Depending on ability or criticality of the decision the hierarchy at hand changes.

Emerging Hierarchy

Before I conclude this post, there’s one other dimension I’m going to add to this problem: Adaption and change in organisations. It is the fundamental idea of agile and also self-organised teams, that they express the ability to adapt and change to accommodate different situations. The rules in place today may look different in a month, and thus also the levels of authority that describe our status on self-organisation will change over time.

When a team begins, it will rank very low on all scales of authority. In case of Scrum development teams, we can usually observe that they pretty quickly reach the level of at least self-designing in terms of technical implementation, while they usually stick to manager-led or self-managed in regards to product design and strategy. However, over time, as decisions processes mature and are adapted, you’ll see the actual hierarchy of a self-governed organisation emerge.


So, to sum it up: How do self-organisation and hierarchy relate to each other?

It is important to understand, that self-organisation does not mean the absence of hierarchy. On the contrary! Where there are people, there’ll be a hierarchy. Rather than having no hierarchy, self-organised groups of people emerge a contextual hierarchy over time.

Applying concepts of self-organisation and adaption will generate hierarchical structures, that fit to the problem at hand, as long as you do not stick to conceptions of “non-hierarchy”, but rather open up discussions about which hierarchies you need. To self-organise does not mean, that nobody has a say or may decide something that influences others. The key element is, to enable people to make decisions about how they make decisions.

Links to mentioned papers and works