Complex Adaptive Systems: Why Hierarchy is Dead

In a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence.
Tell a FriendLaurence J. Peter

The author of the Peter Principle reminds us of the limits of hierarchical structures. One need look no further for an example of the powerlessness of hierarchy than the snowstorm that paralyzed New York the weekend after Christmas 2010.  The three main airports in the immediate vicinity of New York City began closing as the snow storm gathered force and by the day after Christmas, hundreds of flights had been canceled.  Restarting the air travel system following this regional storm was a simple matter of clearing the runways and re-booking the passengers, right? Wrong!

Air travel is a perfect example of how complex adaptive systems do not respond to hierarchical command and control methods.  Because aircraft were diverted from the New York vicinity airports to avoid the storm, the entire air travel system was adversely affected as operational efficiencies took as much as a week to recover. An air traveler seeking to leave Nashville to work in Kansas City three days later encountered the reality of how complex adaptive systems operate. Neither city had the slightest weather related difficulty. Nonetheless, flight delays and cancellations were the norm far from New York. Families stranded by canceled flights far from the storm were no more able to leave Chicago for Los Angeles than a family stuck in New York City.  Flights world wide were impacted by a storm in the U.S. Northeast.

The total interdependence of the airline system explains how suffering in one segment affects it all.  Just like a human body, a sore toe can impact the functionality of hip, back and spine leaving the entire body impaired.  The head cannot simply dictate to the body to “get over it”.  Neither can any complex adaptive system respond to hierarchical command.  The system must heal itself holistically.

As our culture becomes more infused with complex adaptive systems (health care, criminal justice, poverty, homelessness), the less any single source of power can address and resolve the problems presented.  Problem solving in complex adaptive systems must take place at the cellular level.  In human systems such as businesses, communities or religious orders the only power leaders possess is that of influence and credibility.  Command and control will not force change in a system that is not convinced of the value of change.  The chief architect of the air travel system had no power to get the system back in running condition by simply ordering it to happen.  The system of air travel could only achieve normalcy as the individual segments of reservations, mechanical repair, logistics and people movement began to function normally again.

For organizational leaders, these lessons of leadership should become clearer as our society’s complexity approaches infinite dimensions.  Building competence at the individual level, encouraging employees in enhancing their skills and acknowledging the value of each person in the work they do are the tools of leadership in complex adaptive systems.  Instilling systems of accountability and providing trustworthy methods of managing the conflict inevitable in organizations are critical leadership skills today.  Leaders who lack personal credibility or are untrusted cannot by force of power influence change.

It is no longer sufficient to simply be “in charge”.


One Response to Complex Adaptive Systems: Why Hierarchy is Dead

  1. Although I am all for “instilling systems of accountability”to address the fact that society is a complex adaptive system, I find that similar to ethics or integrity, accountability is not a system. As long as leaders think “the system won’t let me be accountable” you will hear workers say the exact same thing. I can tolerate the paralysis of a system when an unexpected event occurs and “the system” has to right itself” at the expense of delays, waiting,frustration, etc. It’s when leaders finger point and blame or remain silent as to their personal role in the matter after-the-fact. I want to be reassured (read “demand”) there is a lesser chance I will see the same excuses, different day. The FEMA Director during Katrina had such an opportunity – get in front of the American public and tell the truth – “This is what I did, this is what I learned, here is what I will do differently in the future, here is how I am accountable, up to and including immediate dismissal from this role if I don’t learn from this and work diligently and with accountability to fix the system.” New York’s leadership (for one) can learn so much from this and re-establish credibility, integrity and demonstrate accountability if the debrief takes on the requirement of real leaders – own your actions and the results (good or bad) and commit to the personal change you must make, including all the conflict that comes with it, to do everything in your power to put the result needed first. Leaders utter not one word about how it wasn’t their fault. Does the news media even know how to approach an interview this way? I vote they learn.

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