In Defense of Hierarchy

Alpha Lo, one of the editors of The Open Collaboration Encyclopedia, writes an excellent blog about “open collaboration.” I mostly liked his latest post, where he tries to define “open collaboration,” but I strongly disagreed with one particularly prominent premise. It’s something I see repeated over and over again, often by people I respect, and it bothers me everytime I see it.

He says that open collaboration is not hierarchical.

This is both wrong and problematic. All forms of high-performance collaboration (open or not) are hierarchical. What differentiates open collaboration is that it’s not rigidly hierarchical.

Why the distinction? Because hierarchy is in fact a good thing. Everyone should not be equal in every context. Part of effective collaboration is about empowering people to do the things that they can do most effectively.

Hierarchical structures are a shortcut for doing this. We try to assign positions of formal power to people who are generally best suited to make good decisions. However, these choices will not be correct in all (or sometimes in any) contexts. In those cases, the challenge is finding ways to skillfully navigate these structures or to adapt them accordingly. The military is a great example of a system that tries to account for this flaw. It’s a rigidly hierarchical system that promotes people who know when and how to work around the system.

A network frame is not about getting rid of hierarchy. It’s about allowing the best form of hierarchy to emerge. It’s not only incorrect to frame it as being opposed to hierarchy, it’s problematic. Instead of worrying about hierarchy, we should be looking out for rigid structures, both explicit and implicit. The implicit structures are often the more problematic ones.

Some of these implicit structures stem from basic human dynamics. For example, there have been many studies showing that we tend to give agency to people who talk a lot, regardless of what it is that they’re saying. A system that does not acknowledge and attempt to counter this will run into the same problems that any traditionally hierarchical system has, even if it’s more “open” on the surface.

Wikipedia is a great example of this, as are most communities that use traditional online forums. Town hall meetings are a great face-to-face example of this. People are able to acquire implicit power in these communities simply by out-talking everyone else. Tools like Quora try to counter this by not unintentionally rewarding people who talk more than others. And, in imposing alternative structures, these tools introduce new problems.

This is where the rest of Alpha’s post resonates strongly with me. In describing how to build an open collaboration project, he talks about more participatory structures, prototyping and open feedback loops, diversity and empathy. These are all strategies that counter rigidity and that encourage the right kinds of hierarchy to emerge in the right moments.

Three Simple Hacks for Making Delightful Virtual Spaces

This is Katie Krummeck. She’s the Community Experience Coordinator at Stanford’s What exactly does that mean? It means a lot of things, but you can get a tiny taste by reading her sign, which sits on her desk on the first floor of the building.

I am in love with the space at the, which — not surprisingly — is beautiful and functional. But Katie’s sign might be my favorite thing there. Why? Because it’s low-tech, it does what it’s supposed to do, and it adds a touch of humanity (among many) to the space. If you’re wandering around the lobby, lost or looking for something, you will eventually run into Katie and her sign, and you will not only know immediately that she can help you, but that she is happy to help you. It’s the difference between a functional space and a delightful, inviting space.

Creating delightful, inviting spaces is simple, but not easy. Unfortunately, we often make it unnecessarily complicated. I don’t expect most workspaces to have wide open, reconfigurable spaces with natural light on two sides and moveable whitewalls and furniture. But why can’t all workspaces have signs like this? How many actually do?

Here are three of my favorite, low-tech hacks in the same spirit as Katie’s sign for making virtual interactions more human and delightful.

Welcoming People to Online Forums

This is one of the oldest, most powerful tricks for making even the crappiest online forums inviting. When people post for the first time, respond to their post, and welcome them. It’s simple, requires no training, and it works with all tools, including face-to-face.

Distributing a (Silly) Printed Team Picture for Conference Calls

Our intuitions about video are largely wrong, and the technical costs and inconvenience are still quite high. (Think about the 15 minutes that we often waste at the beginning of each call, because someone can’t get the tool working.)

Here’s a trick I learned from Marcia Conner. Take a photo of the team, preferably a silly one, and distributed printed copies to everyone to post on their walls during conference calls. It’s cheap, it’s just as good (if not better) at creating a sense of connection and fun, and it works with both synchronous and asynchronous tools.

Theme Your Online Tools

Groupaya was a virtual company, even though we all lived in San Francisco. We took advantage of our physical proximity by coworking twice a week, but we wanted a way to stay connected virtually as well. We tried Yammer, Salesforce Chatter, Google Plus, and None of them ever got any traction.

Then we tried WordPress with P2, a hack whose features paled in comparison to the other tools. But one thing we could easily do was re-theme it. So I spent about 20 minutes making the background orange — the same color as Kristin Cobble’s beautiful kitchen, where we often worked — and choosing and cropping a meaningful, delightful photograph to serve as the header image.

That was the difference that made the difference. It rapidly succeeded where the other tools had failed. Our usage numbers only told part of the story. Everyone simply loved using the tool.

Kristin's Kitchen