The magic of hierarchy

Probably my favourite tool in the arsenal of analyst techniques has to be decomposition. Whether it’s functional or process decomposition there is nothing like it for arranging problems into the big picture. Then breaking that picture down into its component parts so that you can start to make sense of it.

hierarchyAnd yet hierarchy, in recent years, has got a pretty bad reputation. As Stanford professor Bob Sutton wrote this weekend in this LinkedIn article. He was brought up to believe that hierarchy was bad and led to inefficiency, yet research for his new book showed that hierarchy is unavoidable.

Hierarchy is nature’s gift to us in helping us understand the World around us. Citing research by his colleagues Deb Gruenfeld and Lara Tiedens he describes how hierarchy is found in every single group of animals found in nature. To quote Gruenfeld and Tiedens directly:

When scholars attempt to find an organization that is not characterized by hierarchy, they cannot.

Hierarchy structures the relationships between people and things into parent, child and peer relationships. This makes it easier for us to remember those relationships, it provides an organising principle that is standardised across everything. We simply have to know how hierarchy works in order to understand something that is new to us.

This is what makes decomposition so powerful. It comes naturally to us human beings so is not really something that needs much in the way of education. When we apply it, it’s often to an area that seems chaotic and complex. By decomposing we overlay a hierarchy that allows us to understand what was previously incomprehensible. It allows us to break problems down into component parts in order to tackle them effectively and even start to predict what will happen when we make changes.

It doesn’t just aid understanding, it also helps us to remember. Instead of having to remember every single discreet component of an organisation you simply need to remember a small subset. You can then use this along with the hierarchical organising principle and you will be able to fairly accurately calculate the missing pieces.

This is what makes decomposition one of the first things I do when introduced to a new problem.

An extended version of this article is available at


3 thoughts on “The magic of hierarchy

  1. Craig, I am pretty much in agreement on hierarchy. See my blog post:

    But I propose that the efficiency of hierarchy is no longer properly used in human organizations, mostly because as you say they are decomposable. Hierarchies work only if they grow naturally and usually they can’t be designed to work well. Therefore I propose that decomposition is not the right tool because the natural social structure of a business grows by means of emergence from comlexity and not by design. We all know that the working structures are the ones that come naturally and easily.

    In large businesses and government organizations, hierarchies are not used for efficieny but only for structuring power. And with power I do not mean authority which also comes naturally from the skills that people have and not from titles and positions that are artificially bestowed. In large organisations the ‘Peter Principle’ is prevalent … people are advanced through a bureaucracy until they are incompetent and thats where they remain.

    Therefore the right approach to make a business work better is to have a managerial structure for the politics and a skill based hierarchy to do the things that serve customers and advance the business. There is no need to decompose, one just needs a process definition focused with explicit goals and outcomes rather than illusionary flows.

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