Monday, June 8, 2015

The Oxymoronic Idea of Flattened Hierarchies and How It Might Empower Our Mission

Not Quite the Hierarchy I have In Mind.
Recently my friend the Rev. Merrill Wade sent me an article from fast company entitled “What Kind of Leadership Is Needed in Flat Hierarchies?” by Vivian Giang. Giang is a freelance writer. Previously, she launched the entrepreneurship vertical at PolicyMic and the careers vertical at Business Insider. The article is very helpful in offering us a picture of the kinds of changes we need to seriously consider at the highest levels of a bureaucratic church that wishes on the one hand to flatten its ministry in order to empower people and mission BUT at the same time does not want to give up our inherited hierarchy.

She points out that over the last 100 years organizations have moved from bureaucratic to distributed leadership.[i] The Episcopal Church in large measure has not progressed during this same period of time and I believe it is this difference between what people experience in the real work place coming into conflict with outdated models of hierarchy which is frustrating our mission and keeping our structures from change.

Giang introduces us to Deborah Ancona, a professor of management and organizational studies at MIT who talks about how companies in America circa 1920s were "super bureaucracies."[ii] Interesting to note that this was the last period of time in which our own Episcopal structures underwent any major change. We are in an organization that largely reflects the best organizational thinking of men in the 1920s. However, thinking about organizations did not stop with these super bureaucracies they evolved. According to Ancona “in the 1960s, people focused on interpersonal relationships and lots of discussions centered around trust and empathy. In the 1990s, it was all about organizations needing to undergo large-scale changes and vision. Finally, today’s workplace centers on what’s called variously eco-leadership, collaborative leadership, or distributed leadership.”[iii]

What is amazing is that shared leadership between laity and clergy has always been a hallmark of our Episcopal Church. While dioceses and congregations have continued to move along this organizational trajectory – although outpaced by the rest of the culture – our wider church structures have not. We have ground into our deep theology of the prayer book the understanding of a ministry of all the baptized. We value shared leadership. We raise the banner of interpersonal relationships, discourse centered around trust, we value vision, but we have yet to understand the very nature of a networked hierarchy. We remain imprisoned by a bureaucratic model that assigns roles by virtue of an out moded system.

Our mission is holy but our structure is not - it is always and only a means by which we seek to faithfully undertake God's mission.

Ancona in her book X-Teams: How to Build Teams That Lead, Innovate, and Succeed, as in who do you know outside and inside of your team. "It’s all about your network. If you understand the internal network in your company, you have a higher chance of moving ahead." Every organization has to have leaders and a hierarchy. At the same time a shared leadership and shared power can level the hierarchy and bring people closer into partnership.

You don’t have to get rid of shared relational power and organizational identity to go flat. At the same time clarification of roles, and centralizing convening powers (even if shared between executives) can create adaptive opportunities.

For this to happen the leaders at the highest levels have to look more at what they can accomplish together than spending time compete for power or not working together.

Even Google has hierarchy. Remember in 2007 when they announced a “Chief Culture Officer”?[iv] The work Stacy Sevides Sullivan says is to help the company keep their unique culture keeping the “the core values we had in the very beginning--a flat organization, a lack of hierarchy, a collaborative environment--to keep these as we continue to grow and spread them and filtrate them into our new offices around the world.”[v] They employed Sevides as part of the hierarchy to keep the structure flat. It sounds oxymoronic but it protected a key ingredient that is essential to Google.

The truth is that we must pay careful attention to our own religious history here a bit. Is this flat culture not the culture Jethro advises Moses to use in sharing his authority? It is the same culture as modeled by Jesus in the sending out of the seventy. The disciples and first apostles use a similar flat cultured organization – even if they would not have considered it so. Paul certainly offers us insight into flat culture communities of the first century. In my own book CHURCH I argue that we are seeing a new flat culture in terms of mission develop. Our small batch communities that are local, organic, and sustainable are examples of a mission with a flat culture.

Furthermore, sustaining big bureaucracies is costly and in an economic situation with shrinking mission we must chose carefully what it is we wish to fund.

I believe our work is always and everywhere to remind ourselves of the difference between church and God’s dream of the church - ecclesia. We are to make sure that we are clearly focused on God’s dream of the ecclesia so that as we make decisions we are doing so mindfully aware that our own attempts are always falling short of God’s dream. They are always rooted in our earthiness and limited by our human nature.

Now, the reason why this “flat” organization business is getting so much press is that Ancona gave a talk at MIT during last month’s Neuroscience for Leadership class. So lets take her comments apart a little and consider their meaning for Church and for our structures. I want to use Ancona and Giang’s work here to inspire our thinking. So I am keeping Giang’s headings from the article.The first goal of a flatter organization is to allow decisions to be made throughout the organization and to do this transparency has to grow. We are clearer about how decisions are made at every level and we have to empower people to freely make decisions and not to shame them if they go wrong or take initiative.[vi]

There has to be a sharing, or the ability to share throughout the organization, what is really happening at the grass roots level. This is important as it is a bottom up sharing which helps the organization – if it is flat – to adapt to changing mission needs.[vii]

This is important to the Church because what has happened is that the bureaucratic hierarchy is so distant from the marketplace, culture, and local mission field it isn’t really able to help the organization with either transparency or clarity. Not only can it often times not reflect what is really taking place; it sets an agenda that is not helpful to the local mission organization. A supersize bureaucracy muddles the whole thing a bit I think in a complex web where it has, through an old system, tried to give people voice.

In a bureaucratic system that worked - the hierarchy from one organization talked to the hierarchy of another organization and strategy and change was brought about. Today change and mission is dependent upon the individuals in the organization. It is dependent upon motivating masses of people.

We say we believe in the ministry of the baptized we have to then flatten our organization, we need to get clear about what drives us, and we need to orient the whole organization around the furtherance of the mission imperative of the organization. I believe that is on the ground mission through evangelism and service. This is where the work of creating peaceful spaces where difference can dwell together and just communities can be built.

We talk a lot about the value and importance of a one on one relational mission strategy where all are empowered and we (at every level of the organization) at our worst spend a lot of time funding a bureaucracy that undermines our key goals and values. In Texas we are pondering how do we take our old model of Diocesan Council and do this very thing? How do we transform our diocesan staff into an organization that coaches, connects, and collaborates? How does the diocese shift so it is clear about its decision-making, flattens its hierarchy, and truly empowers (vs disempowers) the people?

This work has to be done at the highest levels of the organization too.

The goal of the transparency piece is to help people throughout the organization take initiative for themselves. Sometimes what happens in bureaucracies is that we work so hard to get the power we forget that when we get the power we were supposed to give it away! Instead generation after generation of people climb the bureaucratic ladder and discover they are perpetuating the same system.

The goal in this new mission age has to be a transparency and shared leadership that empowers and gets out of the way of people who are doing the ministry. So here is the second big idea from Ancona’s work: You can’t expect people to innovate and create and move in a rapidly paced environment if they don’t understand how to move.”[viii] So it is that we must move as much money down (not up) the food chain. We have to keep resources at the grass roots level. This helps to financially flatten the organization. But along with financial resources we need to also move away from funding programs to funding people.

We have to fund people to go out and work with other people to help raise up leadership. We have to coach and collaborate and share in such a way that we empower people to be entrepreneurial. I am unclear, honestly, about how much of this is possible at the wider church model. More of this can be done locally at the diocesan level. My guess is that some of this could be done at the wider church level for those dioceses who need it. I would be for supporting that work. As I have said repeatedly Tom Bracket’s work from the Church Office is really good at this. I know there are others. This convening and sharing ministry though is very different than the ministry of program.

What we must realize is that we may be in a “bad-context command-and-control [environment].” Here what we do is we have a pedagogical model where the wider church model tells everyone how it is going to be and burdens the rest of the church with policy in order to control. We only need point to our ever-expanding canons to see what is taking place. Another area is the liturgy. Instead of empowering liturgical innovation we seek to get everything approved. I love liturgy and I think it can be a powerful tool in the toolbox of mission. I want my people to feel free to do liturgy and not have to follow policy on everything. I don’t mean to be picking on these two areas (liturgy and canonical – especially because I have friends who LOVE this work) I am just pointing out that we need to be lean in our policy and command control if we really want to empower people. I would offer that the religious leaders of Jesus’ day had over 613 laws that were to govern their faith and that one of the primary reason Jesus got into trouble was that he ran around breaking all their rules.

If we are going to flatten the hierarchy and we are going to expect people to do the entrepreneurial work of mission then they will need access to resources.[ix] This is why networks are so very important to the emerging organization.

Acona says, "There needs to be easy connectivity because that innovation and that collaborative environment requires people doing what we call creative collisions."[x] What Clay Shirky has taught me is that human beings have a tremendous amount of power for their work if we count the resources of personal gifts and time. This is what he calls cognitive surplus. (You can watch his TED talk to better understand the concept.)

Here is the key concept I want you to understand. Organizations exist for a purpose and in order to accomplish this purpose it has a “management problem.”[xi] The management problem is how a hierarchy of employees managing other employees enforces the goals of the organization. In 1920 our current bureaucracy and managements system was AWESOME at doing this! (It was helped along by the fact that the denomination church was about to enter a unique zenith of American church attendance.) It came with a particular economic structure as all structures do, and an economic structure, and a system that is exclusionary. (This reality hurts us Episcopalians and we don’t like to face it. We want to believe that we are not exclusionary. But our councils that meet during the weekdays, our convention which takes 8 days, and the vast majority of our working groups are dependent upon people who can, in the case of GC, give up 8 days and can spend about $250 a day on room and board, plus the conference costs.)[xii]

The reality that Shirky points out is that you just can recruit everyone into a organization. You have to exclude and you end up with a professional class.[xiii] We in our church have multiple levels of professional classes of people including deputies, bishops, clergy, and lay people who are paid.

The whole reason for flattening the organization is to unlock the limiting power of the infrastructure. Yes, you do loose the power of control. But you gain something very important. You gain the reality that you shed institutional cost and increase adaptability. You create a cooperative system. [xiv]Ancona says “that this is where new ideas come from, because people are able to wander from one place to another, purposely meeting and speaking to people across the organization.”[xv]

Acona continues: "They need to connect and collide with people who have different ways of thinking, and [thus] mechanisms that enable that to happen. Having a culture that enables people to move freely from one part of the organization to another and having connectors in the organization who connect the people to one another are all part of creating that kind of organization."[xvi]

We are a hierarchical church. Nothing in this offering changes the fact we are hierarchical. Yet we need to make changes in order to become a flatter organization; and I don't believe those changes undo the structure of the church in terms of its DNA or nature. The purpose of the church wide organization is to serve the mission of the local congregation. To do this the church wide organization must remember that its value is in sharing, connecting, supporting, and cheerleading the diocese and churches as they undertake the local mission. I do think that in order to hold up the mirror to the organization we must take seriously a few things.

1. We need to create a shared power of the presidents that enables us to close the gap of power struggle and increase collaboration and accountability with very real clarity in job descriptions and boundaries of power that draw them together and not pull them apart.

2. We need to decrease numbers of board members and hierarchical structures while protecting representation. These groups need to have clear roles of authority and accountability.

3. We need to increase participation and voices at levels of the organization through media and social connectivity.

4. We need to have staff with clear lines of authority that are not confused by complex bureaucracies and multiple reporting roles.

5. We need to decrease costs and time spent on distractions and increase efficiency in governance (decreasing time, money, and distractions from mission).

6. We need to increase ministries that build networks, share resources, support innovation, empower collaboration, and add flexibility. In areas where there are populations in need of the Episcopal Church we need to focus dollars and resources under the direction of local mission to build healthy communities. (This may mean also supporting ministries and diocese where there is a church but they do not have resources for support. We need to chose to do this work rather than pay for structure.)

7. We need to stop behaviors that continue to drive up costs through complicated management, structures, and administration.

8. We are running too many duplicate services. For example there are many duplicate services between the General Convention Office and the Church Office at 815. We need to work strategically to combine and bring down overhead. 

In some ways our smaller dioceses and I find smaller provinces or provinces with smaller structures actually do this better out of pure necessity. I think for larger structures that are not built with this particularly flattened out DNA or have been operating as long as we have there is a difficult stumbling block to be overcome. It makes change all the more difficult.

[i] Vivian Giang, “What Kind of Leadership Is Needed in Flat Hierarchies?” Fast Company, May 19, 2015.
[ii] Ibid.
[iii] Ibid.
[iv] Ibid.
[v] Elinor Mills, Newsmaker: Meet Google's culture czar, April 27, 2007,
[vi] Giang.
[vii] Ibid.
[viii] Ibid.
[ix] Ibid.
[x] Ibid.
[xi] Clay Shirky, TED Talk Summary, July 2008,
[xii] Ibid.
[xiii] Ibid.
[xiv] Ibid.
[xv] Giang.
[xvi] Ibid.

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