Hierarchy or Collaboration

By Elli Caldwell

nhbsr_logoAt the recent New Hampshire Businesses for Social Responsibility (NHBSR) conference I was interested to see the topic, “Hierarchy or Collaboration” on the afternoon breakout schedule, and I  joined with a group of ten or so other attendees to explore these topics. The conversation turned quickly to comparing the merits and challenges of each and the current state of the business world in which hierarchy is the old school, the norm, and collaboration is quickly gaining in the common parlance of organizational life.

I was excited that so many people had come to the table with opinions and ideas to share about these topics, but perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised. The BSR communities that I’ve just begun getting to know seem steeped in just this type of critical inquiry into the nature and norms of business and the path for turning it towards being a force for good. Several people spoke to what we see so clearly in our work at GRTL–that when groups work collaboratively, they gain access to the diverse ideas, opinions and experiences of everyone involved. In hierarchical structures, the voice of the leader often takes precedence, thereby limiting the potential for creative solutions and innovative approaches to the perspective of one person.

And yet, questions arose during the discussion of the viability of collaboration when decisions need to be made efficiently. It’s worth considering both sides of this coin: what do we gain and what do we lose by collaborating? In a collaborative setting, do we do away completely with designated roles and group structure? I would argue that while these roles can limit a group’s creativity and wisdom when hierarchy is overly emphasized, group structure is still important, and even necessary. Without specified decision makers, or at the very least a process for making decisions, a group can languish in an amorphous space of collective brainstorming without clearly reaching a conclusion.

redwoodsA member of the conversation at the conference posed the example of his business, a large corporation with multinational branches and a complex organizational structure. He questioned whether collaboration could possibly work in this setting, which raises a significant point. Are there size limits beyond which collaboration is not effective? In the natural world, systems abide by limits to growth, which determine the dynamic equilibrium of that system’s optimal functioning. Beyond these limits, resources diminish, competition increases and the health and population of the system begin to wain. This natural negative feedback loop helps to maintain the proper size and functioning of these systems. In the human world, I think that similar rules apply. Beyond a certain size, a group’s effectiveness and overall health deteriorate, and yet the feedback loops for us are not as obvious as in the natural world. The population of our groups does not literally diminish, but parallel negative impacts do arise. Conflict increases; the loudest voices overpower the more reserved; ideas go unheard; speed increases and processes break down. If we extend the metaphor of natural systems, we may strike upon a possible solution. If we model human systems after the natural world, we would nest small collaborative systems within larger structural systems in ways that allow us to function as an effective whole.

As evidenced by the energy and richness of our breakout conversation, this is a fruitful and timely topic for groups, businesses and organizations. I would love to hear from you about your experiences with collaboration and hierarchy. What do you think we gain and what do we lose by engaging in either one? What would you suggest as our own dynamic equilibrium?

We are now proud members of New Hampshire Businesses for Social Responsibility. To access videos and presentations from the spring conference, visit the NHBSR website!

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While they were saying it couldn't be done, it was done.
— Helen Keller