By Logan Monaco, MS
Conbrio Associate

Is top-down falling down? It is, the evidence shows. Slowly, but pervasively.

Hierarchy is still the norm in many organizations. Diagram the structure and you have a pyramid. Levels of people are arranged into fixed teams. The responsibility for teams is the manager’s, the person who sits above them. Each of the levels supports the one above it. The head honcho sits atop the pyramid ultimately responsible for all of the people, all the teams.

Most of us have worked in organizations like these. They’ve been effective for centuries. And they can be very effective for expertise-oriented work, where each person contributes from their particular functional domain – which is separate from their colleagues’ domain. Then, in an illustration of the saying, ‘the whole is greater than the sum of its parts,’ the pieces are rolled up, where they are composed into a single, unified work product. The assembly line, put to work in the office.

Developing mold-fitting, domain-operative workers who take on a series of tasks deepening each worker’s technical expertise has been the imperative for traditionally run organizations. The workers earn certifications and take seminars in their field of knowledge. This isn’t a bad thing in and of itself, but it certainly exacerbates differences. It more often pushes people in the organization apart; it more rarely brings them together to work collaboratively.

The T-structured worker, a relative newcomer to the organizational scene, was intended as an adjustment to the pyramid structure, intending to make it more effective. The T-worker has a broad, shallow knowledge range (the crossbar of the T), and a single area of knowledge that goes very deep (the plunging vertical line on the T). Yes, this worker is better than the one who has no knowledge of other domains. But, it’s a stretch to call this person well-rounded. He comes with a myopic, not holistic lens. He’s still trained to see the world from his functional domain.

Whether T or traditionally structured, if there’s a problem one worker or a collection of workers can’t solve, the problem lands in the laps of supervisors higher up in the pyramid. Any one of us who has ever managed or led knows exactly what this means. The manager or leader has to deal with it. She must turn her focus from her higher-level work and begin troubleshooting at a lower level, which, in turn, leads to a lower level of her effectiveness. The leader spends her time either solving subordinates’ problems or training them to solve them on their own. Effectiveness wanes.

In this sense, traditional organizations are built to kill high-level effectiveness. They are specialized, slow to respond to changes and siloed. The silos compete for intra-organizational resources. They create problems efficiently, if nothing else.

So how can companies organize themselves to be future-ready, cross-functional, and silo-free? How can they develop people who are not only effective in their tasks, but see the big picture. How can those who manage and lead people be freed to refocus their attention away from below, and up to their level of contribution?

Teams. Especially fluid teams. Dynamic, flexible, collaborative teams.

Collaborative teams composed of members from across the organization are able to hold broad perspectives. They can synthesize information to create richer visions. And they can solve problems in creative, integrative ways. Teams may form for one-off tasks and disband after they deliver their unique result. Or they may live on to do multiple tasks with some people cycling off and new people coming on depending on the task.

These teams have leaders, but leaders who lead differently than top-down directors. Leaders who lead flexible, collaborative teams are more facilitative. They assemble the team’s members, set expectations for each members’ impact, and orchestrate the starting and stopping of the team’s work. More often than not, the team leader may be described as a player-coach, contributing on one or several teams. The nature of this role is high-touch, encouraging – NOT micromanaging.

Using flexible, collaborative teams allows organizations to hire based on ability, adaptability and resilience, not solely on trained skillset. They can hire great people based not on what they know, but what they can learn. Psychologists call this ‘learning agility’ – the ability to learn, unlearn and relearn. It’s a term you’ll hear more often.

Why is this important? Skills and knowledge become obsolete. The new way replaces the old. It’s a rule. Yet learning is important forever in a world that never stops changing. Organizations of the future will need more agile people.

More and more, flexible, collaborative teams are the way people are working in organizations. Already the evidence of great success is there among companies who have implemented dynamic, self-managed teams. Your organization may be ready to make the switch at all levels. All at once.

Or, you may need to nudge it gradually because you know resistance will be fierce and your people will be afraid. If you do, start with some education on how teams work, how teams get to high performance. Begin scheduling regular calls with team members. Build trust by discussing each members’ project and processes. Ask your team to take on an important task, using collaborative processes, including envisioning the final result, committing to reaching that result and then pitching in to get the work done. With such a project, celebrate success. And, finally, repeat with another project and repeat again. So the change sticks.

Doing so will surely mean top-down will fall down.   A good thing when it provides better results.

Logan Monaco holds an MS in Organizational Psychology and works on a range of organizational development issues. His specialty is assessments.