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:
But let’s see the book more in detail.
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:
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
Fairtlough describes in detail the advantages of each model:
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.
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 thinking, interpersonal process and teamwork.
He also discussed several “institutional arrangements” necessary to support a move to Heterarchy, such as organisational democracy, separation of power, job 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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