Network and Hierarchy: The Dual Operating System of the Future


As a manager today, it is necessary to have more abilities than just to climb the career ladder as far as possible. The hierarchy is without question an appropriate form of organization to efficiently manage today’s and well-known business. However, when it comes to respond adequately to the ever-increasing pressure of change in an ever-shorter period of time, the hierarchy and classic change programs reach their limits. John P. Kotter therefore argues that change should be understood as the new normal and he therefore suggests the network as a second operating system for organizations. This network is cross-hierarchical and organized as loosely coupled initiatives of intrinsically motivated volunteers. Building it up, maintaining it and making contributions to it is a very important task of leadership in order to create sustainable organizations in times of change. That is precisely why the fourth thesis in the Manifesto for Human Leadership is called “Contributions to networks over position in hierarchies”.

Sustainable organizations recognize and cope with continuous change

The hierarchy has its justification and its advantages when it comes to organizing the known business model according to defined processes and roles as efficiently as possible. However, this is not enough to ensure long-term and sustainable success. In addition to this hierarchy, which is designed for stability and efficiency for today’s business, organizations also require a component which is responsible for change, improvement and tomorrow’s business. This role traditionally falls to strategy departments, change programs, task forces and the like. The change is thus a (temporary) part of the hierarchy and controlled with the familiar methods of management. For major changes with a known goal, such as the introduction of a new enterprise resource planning system, a new compensation model and such, this works quite well using the familiar change management techniques.

The basic assumption, however, is that change is rather the exception and strategy and strategic decisions are the responsibility of a few strategists and top management. But what if the world becomes so volatile and the markets so fast that change becomes the rule? Then these hierarchical processes starting with identification and evaluation of opportunities to setting up a strategic change projects fail because of their cumbersome nature caused by the hierarchical decision-making processes. In order to be successful in such a world, change — in addition to the hierarchy for efficient organization of today’s business — must become the second nature of the organization, the second operating system, as John P. Kotter describes in his book “Accelerate”.

We cannot ignore the daily demands of running a company, which traditional hierarchies and managerial processes can still do very well. What they do not do well is identify the most important hazards and opportunities early enough, formulate creative strategic initiatives nimbly enough, and implement them fast enough.

John P. Kotter.  Accelerate! in HBR November 2011

The network as second operating system

The idea behind this network as a second and equal operating system is to recruit an army of volunteers across the hierarchy. The task of this network is to work constantly on the change and advancement in small loosely linked initiatives. This network of intrinsically motivated people is guided by a strong common purpose and a common sense of urgency. This strategic alignment gives orientation for these volunteers constantly driving change.

Leadership is not a rank or a position, it is a choice — a choice to look after the person to the left of us and the person to the right of us.

Simon Sinek

The managers of the hierarchy as first operating system play an important role in this game. In addition to their main job as day-to-day managers, they must ensure that the network as second operating system thrives and that contributions to it are seen as equivalent and important. This calls for leadership with purpose and trust. First of all, orientation is needed through a common purpose and a common vision to which people can say yes wholeheartedly and to which they would like to make a voluntary contribution. Then it requires permission and the freedom to become active in this network. And otherwise it simply takes faith in the creativity of this army of volunteers. Without hierarchical power, only trust can hold this network together and make collaboration productive and effective. And trust results from generous contributions to the network. Therefore, the fourth thesis in the Manifesto for Human Leadership says “Contributions to networks over position in hierarchies.”

This article was originally published on Führung erfahren!

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