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Last Updated: Monday, 28 November 2005, 23:21 GMT
Get rid of the hierarchies

By Peter Day
Presenter, BBC Radio 4 and BBC World Service

The Office
Should the boss be a humble co-worker?
Why is working in large organisations often so unrewarding? Why does it seem so purposeless, apart from the pay packet?

Work takes up most of our waking lives for the best part of our lives, yet in many cases, work does not really work. What a waste!

A new little book by Gerard Fairtlough addresses this big dilemma. It's called "The Three Ways of Getting Things Done".

It is worth considering his arguments because Mr Fairtlough is not an academic or a consultant hustling to make money out of a new Big Idea.

He is a veteran British businessman with a considerable track record: a 25-year career at Shell where he rose to be chief executive of Shell Chemicals UK. Then, in 1980, he founded one of the few really successful British biopharmaceutical companies, Celltech, and ran it for 10 years. (Last year Celltech was sold to a Belgian firm for $2.5bn.)

So Gerard Fairtlough's objections to the way things are currently done in business are based on lots of experience. What he dislikes (along with many other management thinkers) is hierarchy - the conventional way of getting things done with command and control and bosses.

It is, says Gerard Fairtlough, hardwired into the human makeup, but that doesn't make it useful or productive.

"It is corrosive to be in any part of a hierarchy," says this man with his long experience of one of the greatest corporate bureaucracies of all at Shell, not pulling his punches.

No names, no titles

Under the influence of their genetic respect for a pecking order, people honestly believe that hierarchy is the only way to get things done, says Mr Fairtlough.

The Three Ways of Getting Things Done
No more monkey business for Mr Fairtlough

But in fact, he says, it gets in the way.

From his own experience at Shell Chemicals, Gerard Fairtlough started to realise that what was expected of the chief executive was "incredibly artificial"; ritualistic dictatorship.

At the same time he realised that he didn't know enough to tell other people what to do.

Much better that the chief executive interfering was a chance to talk to people throughout the organisation, deliberately sharing views to arrive at jointly held agreement and consensus.

Gradually Shell Chemicals people realised he was offering them a resource to work better and enjoy their work more, he says.

No names, no titles (though in fact he did not abolish the old ones at Shell).

"What you do is talk a lot, agree on a procedure and get on and do it," he says.

"What people are labelled is far less important than agreeing on how to get things done."

Go off and do it

Gerard Fairtlough calls this second approach to operations Heterarchy.

It's a word taken from the social scientist James Oliver, and it means multiple or dispersed rule.

Sceptics will ask: "Why do old-style hierarchical companies seem to work so well, then?"

Only because almost all companies are run in the same way, says Mr Fairtlough. There are really no heterarchies to compare them with.

Mr Fairtlough admits that abandoning familiar command and control is fearsomely difficult.

Replacing it with heterarchical organisations will take a century or more. It doesn't mean getting rid of leadership, just dispersing leadership throughout an organisation to give people a purpose.

Leadership comes from everywhere, potentially - until it is stifled by hierarchy. It is the energy and enthusiasm of the people all over the organisation that creates things.

And there's a third way of Getting Things Done: Responsible Autonomy, self government for an agreed purpose.

Agree on an aim, and then say to a group of people: "Go off and do it". Outside the familiar framework of checks and balances, but within some predefined criteria.

One of the few notable recent successes of the troubled Sony Corporation is the famous game console the PlayStation, created by secret skunk work that the company had told its people not to pursue: autonomy (you might say irresponsible autonomy) in action.

But to most companies it sounds like chaos: risky play with shareholders' money.

Mr Fairtlough says that is what he did with his fledgling startup CellTech: convincing shareholders to invest in a company that might in 10 or 15 years produce a drug that paid off.

Investors had to trust the company; employees of such an organisation had to trust each other, and this heterarchy worked there, strikingly.

Maybe the fact that he gathered together a lot of scientists with scientific aims and timescales helped create the new corporate spirit of heterarchy, but Gerard Fairtlough sees similar things happening in rapidly growing partnerships of professional services firms embracing accountants, lawyers and consultants.

Even so, work in most organisations, public and private, is encumbered by a lot of tiresome pointlessness.

How does a corporation align the wishes and aspirations of the people who work for it with what the companies makes or the services it produces?

No one really knows how to do it. Mr Fairtlough is having a go.

Work in Progress is the title of this exploration of the big trends upheaving the world of work as we steam further into the 21st century; and it is a work in progress, influenced and defined by my encounters as I report on trends in business and organisations all over the world.


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