We love hierarchies. But they’re changing.

It used to be easy. We knew where we stood. We had a place in a known system. We knew who to ask, who to tell, and who controlled our future. We could design processes, create protocols, develop template answers and become really quite efficient.

As with anything like this, it becomes habit, and habits are addictive. People who depend on the system – particularly those in the middle of the hierarchy – become far more adept at categorising challenges and applying template solutions than analysing the challenge. It’s faster, easier and safer. When appraisals and bonuses are at stake, that’s important.

The flow of information, opinion and power was straightforward. There were limited nodes in our networks. Things that weren’t simple did at least have to good grace to be complicated, and computers are good at complicated, and much better than the people we’ve trained to do it. In those areas, the threats we see to jobs are real.

Traditional approaches to hierarchies gave us tools appropriate to the times. Organisation hierarchies, hierarchies of need, SMART goals.

There’s a new hierarchy in town. Hierarchies of understanding and connection. Ubiquitous connections means we are now all part of fluid systems, with inflows of data not just internally, but externally. Alternative views, expert opinion, latest views, job offers.

As something of a thought experiment, take a work unit of fifty people (according to Dunbar, the most effective “intimate” unit where everybody knows each other by name). In their work network, without dealing with clients, suppliers etc, they have to manage around 2,500 different relationships. In their personal lives, the average number of connections we have is around 500, meaning they have around another 250,000. Clearly, not all contacts are equal, but that’s still a lot of bandwidth, and a huge source of varied data.

And, therein lies your power.

It may be easy, conventional and convenient for an organisational hierarchy to see you as a job spec in a role. Assessable, replaceable and controllable via salary, bonus and appraisal.

We are all much more than that. We are unique nodes in a series of complex interlinked networks. Somewhere in there, the things we know, the people we know, and the perspective we have gives us a unique value. To use a chaos theory metaphor, we are potentially the flap of a butterflies wing that triggers a hurricane in some far distant place.

The future of our businesses, and our individual careers, lies not in linear progression but in understanding our place in the system; in this field of information, and where that has value.

It’s difficult to do logically – there’s just too much information, and too many options. We need to go beyond the logic, our appraisals and pay attention to our instincts. In our hearts, and in our soul, we know when we’re heading somewhere we need to be, and equally, when we’re a passenger on someone else’s journey.

For sure, the short term is vital, as is our marketing plan, our goals, our appraisal – but the short term is getting shorter.

Pay attention to your hierarchy of understanding:

  • What’s important to you – now, next? Where are you heading?
  • Who’s there to help you achieve that?
  • Where does what you are doing now fit in?
  • Where is what you are doing now heading?
  • What do you need to understand?

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