Corona and our profession: the end of hierarchy?

Corona and our profession: the end of hierarchy?

This article appeared in the online magazine of ICMCI, the global community of management consultants, of which I am a delegate on behalf of the dutch institute for management consultants, the Orde van Organisatieadviseurs.

I have been thinking about the dominance of hierarchy thinking that is still so forthcoming in many organizations. Although we know that this approach is often effective in tackling complex issues. In this crisis, I see this hierarchical approach still appears pretty dominant.

What I also want to talk about is how we handle this crisis as a country, from a change management perspective. And how dominant that hierarchical thinking still is. We all know that when we are in crisis situation, we fall back on our preferred style and old reflexes. That is what I see happening in the Netherlands, that we try tackling this crisis top down via hierarchical approach and the operation is handled mostly by men (often also old and gray).

I noticed this message: ‘purchase and production of protection masks in the Netherlands could have been faster.’ And in particular there was sentence that caught my eye: “Two weeks ago it was clear that production could be started, but approval from Minister Van Rijn only came last Wednesday.” We still seem to tackle this crisis hierarchically, top down. The press conferences of our Prime Minister are a symbol of this. But the key adviser of our national government, is the National Institute for Health and Environment. There is the national purchasing center (LCH), but also the interdisciplinary team that handles this crisis is national oriented, the Outbreak Management Team.

They all seem to be silos that are controlled from a central point and that are waiting for approval from the minister. Isn’t that outdated? We all know that in a crisis, the complexity is so enormous that, as a chief, we cannot oversee the whole issue. As stated in the article the bottle neck has been at the top of the top. Logical, during a crisis the top get flooded by people and (false) information. Isn’t it fascinating that, although all change management literature, say you shouldn’t control a complex issue top down, that this is still happening and so dominant? What is the reason? Is this the dominant frame of mind of the men who are now at the controls?

I came across General McChrystal’s loyal adjutant Chris Fussell  They made a parallel between controlling the Al Qaida terrorist network and fighting the corona virus. Just like the Bin Laden network could surprisingly hit any country with an attack, so could any plane from any country could carry a person, who’s brings the corona virus. How do you combat that?

Fussel and McChrystal have a few answers:

  1. Shared consciousness. Only together we win. If everyone fights their own battle, we lose. Everyone has access to all information. Shared information and insights must flow from top to bottom and from bottom to top and to every corner. On twitter they saw the Corona arrive faster than our government. However, the National Institute for Health and Environment did not pick up this valuable signals.
  2. Make decentralized decisions. Leave the control as low in the hierarchy as possible, because they know better what is needed. Empower people to make their own decisions. Also listen to their wisdom (reversed mentoring). In this example: Minister of Health Van Rijn determines the desired effect and why and what must be achieved. The national purchasing center (LCH), is getting the mandate how to arrange the protection equipment.And that can be really scary, because you can no longer blame the minister if things go wrong. We all know, that when you are the last in line and you are responsible for an important decision, that you will do this more carefully and spar with an important colleague than if I know that there are still 10 people after you in the hierarchy who are checking your decision.

    What I also wonder: why are we not using all the thinking and doing capacity that we need in this crisis (wisdom of the crowd). I still have the feeling that a protected group of tough men is trying to combat this crisis. Do we use the right channels to arrange enough protective equipment and also test capacity? Or are there also informal channels that we should also use in times of crisis (On twitter you can see important influencers who are working on their own to organize protective equipment).

  1. The leader as a gardener, not as a chess master. The leader is no longer a chess master who plays his pieces on the board, but the gardener who creates the conditions so that others can function optimally. Protect them, take care of them, ask them what resources and information they need and what mandate they in order to take decisions. The leader is the connector and the ‘ring leader’, who makes connections, connects the functions, brings together the shared interests and rewards the people who share information across silos.
  2. Dealing with uncertainty. The world is limited in a crisis. You must do things that you have never done before. You have to make 100% decisions with 50% of the information. The most stupid thing you can do is keep asking for extra information and keep analyzing. You will have to act. And you will make mistakes. Adapting to the situation is the most important thing. You are constantly in a learning and adapting mode. You have plan as a baseline, which is not static and you continuously adjust your strategy.
  3. Relationships: Building relationships is key. That when it gets though, that you have built a bond with each other. That you do not come to a continuous exchange with each other, but that you can fall back on the relationship you have built up. This point may not be applicable in this crisis, but it may be applicable in organizations that are still way too hierarchical oriented. Or that a fellow colluague Edu Feltmann always says: when there is trust, rules are unnecessary.

That twisted hierarchy. Why do we still so often resort to this old-fashioned remedy? Old reflexes seems to be so powerful and dominant. But even the United States military has made the transition in the way they combated Al Qaeda. Why is this still so dominant in the organizations I visit? Where I don’t see information flowing through the organization, but valuable information gets stuck in the workplace or at the board. I still see a lot of central decision-making and people at the bottom of the organization still look upwards instead of taking responsibility themselves. And I often see leaders as accomplished chess masters who want to be at the wheel (because then you matter) and only a few facilitating gardeners who dare to hand over the steering wheel to their often very professional employees. I also still see plans being made for 1 or 5 years and the deviation from this still has to be arranged in the rigid spring and autumn memorandum and via budget changes (I am exaggerating). And last but not least: a lot of my work is mainly establishing relationships between people, building bridges, translate so that people can hear each other and build trust.

Do you recognize this pattern in your country, in the organizations were you are coming? And is there still a lot of work for our profession to do? Or am I wrong?



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