Book Review: The Three Ways of Getting Things Done by Gerard Fairtlough

Book Review: The Three Ways of Getting Things Done by Gerard Fairtlough
The Three Ways of Getting Things Done
Genre: Management

EBook | 137 pp. | Triarchy Press | | 2nd Edition
Buy on Amazon
4.5 rating

The Three Ways of Getting Things Done has been a genuinely pleasurable discovery. I met this book, together with its key concepts, as I prepared my article on The True Meaning of Hierarchy. It’s one of those books you cannot judge from the cover. Written originally in 2005, it is a thoroughly provocative book. Although many of the ideas expressed, on the alternatives to Hierarchy, can feel to be mainstream today, this book contains a very well crafted theory that probably deserves some more attention. It was so iconoclastic that the author, Gerard Fairtlough, established its own book publishing company, Triarchy Press, to get it published. He died unfortunately only a few years after the first edition of this book, but his legacy stays alive with the publishing house still focused on Systems Thinking.

The book is pretty short but very dense. In this edition comes with a foreword by Stewart Clegg.

There are five key concepts that I have derived from the book, and that I find extremely useful. Let me summarise these first:

  1. Hierarchy is not the only organisation model existing.
  2. It is hegemonic, that’s for sure, and for many, it is almost like the “default setting” in a software. You simply accept it and go for it.
  3. There are other two (and only two) different ways of “getting things done”: Heterarchy and Responsible Autonomy.
  4. Organisations, in reality, are plastic, and the concept of plasticity means that they allow for continuous variations of how things get done.
  5. It is external control mechanisms that will push organisations more towards plastic adaptability.

But let’s see the book more in detail.

The Hegemony of Hierarchy

The first chapter analyses why Hierarchy is always considered the default model for organising work. Fairtlough goes down the political lane and uses the concept of hegemony developed by Antonio Gramsci, an Italian communist thinker. Hegemony refers to when the overall dominance of theory creates a way of seeing the world that becomes accepted and normal by nearly everyone. In the case of Hierarchy, one of the factors that contribute to this dominance is the continuous referral to the fact that hierarchic behaviours are innate and therefore inevitable. Which also brings to the consequence that most often talks around the organisation are effectively about “who’s in charge”. Fairtlough also notes that the discussion on possible alternatives is misleading because Hierarchy is continuously tested against chaos and anarchy.

Hierarchy is found in all human institutions, from families to society in general. Many social and political movements have challenged its dominance, and as a result, we have democracy, a political system that mitigates some of the negative aspects of Hierarchy. Organisations are the place where Hierarchy is most strongly hegemonic. 

The first element of this hegemony idea stems from the theory that Hierarchy is a genetic predisposition. The author does not challenge this theory but tries to complete it with a few observations. He notes that the human genetic inheritance contains an urge to be top, an urge to submit and a fascination with Hierarchy.

The truth is that we don’t have to resort automatically to hierarchy when we want to get things organized.

Gerard Fairtlough, The Three Ways of Getting Things Done

At the organisational level few levers push this hegemony further:

  • The myth of the ‘Great Man’. When things go wrong in a company, usually there is a change at the top. The significant influence of a great CEO is not disputed. Still, the idea that a sole person can change the destiny of an organisation, de facto reinforces the concept of Hierarchy.
  • TraditionWe have always done like that, and we don’t question the assumption. Which often leads to an identification of discipline with Hierarchy, removing the reality that it is the professionalism of the workforce that matters.

In any properly functioning organization, tasks must be divided, rules and systems must be established and culture must be maintained and developed. If we take hierarchies for granted, the only way we can envisage for task-division, rule-setting and culture-development is for the hierarchy to do it.

Gerard Fairtlough, The Three Ways of Getting Things Done

Luckily, the hard fact is that many organisations have learnt that Hierarchy alone is not the right solution, and informal reaction mechanisms have been put in place to stimulate learning beyond Hierarchy.

In a strictly hierarchical organization, the only learning that takes place is the learning of the individual at the top. Everyone else obeys orders. An organization without learning will only survive in very stable conditions. In practice, of course, the lower ranks actually learn and adapt without being told to do so. But hierarchies tend to learn slowly, especially because a lot of effort goes into preserving the superior status of those at the top: inevitably an anti-learning activity.

Gerard Fairtlough, The Three Ways of Getting Things Done

Many hierarchies in organisations are primarily symbolic. The top person might get praised or blamed, but he/she actually doesn’t affect the outcome. The real day-to-day work gets carried away in different forms, largely disconnected from the Hierarchy. In this, he has anticipated a lot of the results of the so-called Organisation Network Analysis. These findings are showing more and more the importance of informal networks in organisations.

What is the organisation?

Fairtlough defines an organisation as a way to enable people to collaborate on tasks and to achieve shared goals. He then focuses on the fact that the coordination of ends and means requires four features: system, culture, leadership and power.

  • Systems are relevant and needed as they provide useful information or structuring communication. These are called ‘enabling’ systems. Enabling systems are highly desirable and are very different from ‘coercive’ systems.
  • Culture Just like its systems, an organisation’s culture can be either enabling or coercive, or some combination of the two.
  • Leadership involves sense-making, vision and persuasion. It should not just be at the top of the organisation but diffused to enable the understanding of the organisation’s purposes across the entire organisation.
  • Power: too often, power is treated as an element of leadership. But power is necessary to get things done, and it is usually concealed in organisations. In most firms, power comes from the control of resources, particularly money. The relationship between power and Hierarchy often goes unchallenged by most management observers. Power is therefore used both to reinforce the hegemony of Hierarchy and to achieve organisational aims.

Hierarchy has been the most commonly used way of combining system, culture, leadership and power in order to get things done. Because it is so common, it is often thought of as the only way. But there are other ways.

Gerard Fairtlough, The Three Ways of Getting Things Done

Triarchy Theory

Fairtlough suggests that there are two valid alternatives to Hierarchy: Heterarchy and Responsible Autonomy. Each of this model exists in an ideal-typical form, with varying degrees in many organisations.

  • Hierarchy is defined as the domain of single rule, following Hobbes teaching.
  • Heterarchy means ‘multiple rule’, a balance of powers rather than the single rule of Hierarchy. It is a much less familiar term than Hierarchy, although the general idea of shared rule has been around for a very long time. Examples of this form are partnerships in law, accountancy and consulting firms where partners have the same equal status.
  • Responsible Autonomy instead develops when an individual or a group has the autonomy to decide what to do but is accountable for the outcome of the decision. It might be called ‘no rule’, or rather, no external rule. Examples of this form are scientific research teams, but also fund managers in some investments firms.

The author explains that these other two models can support the organisation to become a Complex Evolving System, thus becoming more resilient to adapt to changes in the organisation.

Advantages of each model

Fairtlough describes in detail the advantages of each model:

  • For Hierarchy, he identifies Familiarity, naturalness, prevention of chaos, discipline, leadership, use of scarce talent, personal motivation, personal identity and clarity
  • For Heterarchy he states that it becomes a bulwark against tyranny, it enables the emergence of cooperation, it generates commitment to shared goals, it fosters co-evolution, learning and innovation, it is naturally pluralistic and supportive of teamwork, and it makes good use of diversity.
  • For Responsible Autonomy, he sees mostly advantages shared with Heterarchy, plus two further elements. First,  the removal of the delays and distortions that occur when a large organisation tries to control everything from the centre. Second autonomy can be used to generate a Complex Evolutionary System. Innovation and continuously improved performance can result.

Alignment with other Theories

Fairtlough uses two chapters to explain the alignment between his Triarchy Theory and other social-studies theory. The first looks at the work Cultural Theory by Michael Thompson, Richard J. Ellis and Aaron Wildavsky. The second looks at Contingency Theories, and particularly Lex Donaldson’s work.

Driving Change

Chapter eight focuses on the elements that are needed to transition to an alternative model. Fairtlough identifies the need to develop a set of skills to support this change process, particularly in the domains of conceptual thinkinginterpersonal process and teamwork. 

He also discussed several “institutional arrangements” necessary to support a move to Heterarchy, such as organisational democracyseparation of powerjob rotation and Rewards System. He examines the Semco case (that we have seen in Maverick) as an example of the many things that can be achieved.

He also focuses on enabling infrastructure, which is especially important to stimulate participation and trust.


A final concept that he introduces comes from Roberto Unger, a Brazilian philosopher, and is the concept of plasticity, which is the ease with which work relations between participants in a societal institution (including an organisation of any kind) can be “constantly shifted to suit changing circumstances”. Mostly Fairtlough sees in this concept the actual reality of what happens in organisations, continually moving between the three ideal-types of organisation every day.


I must say I liked The Three Ways of Getting Things Done. Concise and stimulating, primarily leveraging the long experience as an executive of Fairtlough, yet with the scientific rigour of a scientist by education. He definitely ha seen how things work in an organisation and tried to develop a conceptual framework for this. Many of the topics he treats have anticipated, for example, Laloux’s conclusions. Above all, what I like is the fact that he builds a theory that is practical, not ideological.

One of the most significant consequences of his theory concerns change management. Let’s read it in his words.

Sustainable organizational change can only take place in a non-hierarchical manner. Imposed change, which ignores the need for learning and overrides personal values, cannot work for long. Worthwhile change only emerges from reflective practice and has to be fully embraced by all concerned. The load of ill-considered changes, which hierarchical organizations must presently endure, can be avoided by a heterarchical approach.

Gerard Fairtlough, The Three Ways of Getting Things Done

What’s interesting is that the entire practice of Change Management is filled with Heterarchical practices. Steering committees, stakeholders involvement, impact assessment, you name it, are all reactions to the fact that imposed change doesn’t happen.

But I think his most significant contribution is linking his theory to the concept of plasticity, and an everchanging organisation design practice. I found this to be a great lense to review my idea of Intentional Design, and it perfectly complements also the view that consistency is continually evolving in the organisation itself.

Hierarchy is still a hegemonic theory; this is also another significant contribution. Which means we need to tackle it at the roots, to be able to think differently. It will not be easy, but it is essential. And above all, we need to do it not only because it is good, but because it can pragmatically help to get things done.

Hierarchy will not easily withdraw. Understanding, inventiveness, balance and bravery will be needed to shift it.

Gerard Fairtlough, The Three Ways of Getting Things Done

The Three Ways of Getting Things Done is definitely worth the investment of a few hours of reading time (and many more of reflection).

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The Three Ways of Getting Things Done
Genre: Management | Rating: 4.5/5
By Gerard Fairtlough
EBook | 137 pp. | Triarchy Press | 27/02/2012 | 2nd Edition
ISBN: 9780955008139
Buy on Amazon

The Three Ways of Getting Things Reviews on Goodreads

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