In Defense of Hierarchies

The distributed control promised by networks can shrivel up with the wrong leadership. In the same way, it can be conceived that the centralization of authority in hierarchies can be distributed. The contention here is that hierarchies are not the problem. It's not hierarchies, it's us.

In Defense of Hierarchies
The ladder design of hierarchies. .


There is a compelling narrative in emergency management and elsewhere suggesting that hierarchies and their centralized control should be replaced with networks with distributed control. When I first engaged with this narrative I was a fervent supporter. In more recent years, I have come to view network forms of organization (temporary and otherwise) as an ideal goal that may be attainable through the consumption of considerable quantities of focus, energy, and commitment. Here, I will look at the transition from hierarchies to networks and explore how hierarchies might be improved upon in the name of larger organizational change. This post draws influence from lasting questions from my graduate program, audience engagement, and countless hours of pondering organizational transitions.

From Hierarchies to Networks

Hierarchies are commonly criticized for isolating decision-making authority (control) at the top of the organizational chart. As a result, frontline operational employees are unable to make the quick decisions necessary to respond to environmental fluctuations and choose the tactics that best fit their context. My wildland firefighting experience tells me this critique is firmly grounded in the lives of operational actors. Some will argue the solution is to move to network forms of organization where decision-making authority is distributed throughout the organization and operational employees can act with relative autonomy. Communication pathways and information rather than lines of authority become the focus. I agree that the transition from hierarchies to networks may be a solution to often unresponsive organizations, but I likely disagree with many about how and when to get there.

The argument for moving from hierarchies to networks seems to often overlook how the transition from one to the other will unfold. The question is, "How are you actually going to do it?" Surely this metamorphosis in organizational form will require immense energy expenditure, focus, time, and commitment, all while continuing to maintain normal operations in chaotic, complex, and ordered environments. As the transition will take considerable time, it is likely it will last longer than some members will hold their positions. Commitments to the transition will then need to span multiple tenures. Finding enough commitment to the transition may be difficult in a field where hierarchies and their centralized control are so engrained in practice. For example, institutions like the Incident Command System will be difficult to transform.

The transition draws from the overall focus budget of the organization, which is not infinite. How much focus can the organization afford to spend on an organizational transition? Energy is another key factor. Energy will be required to change policies and procedures and to herald new ways of working. Like time and levels of commitment, there is only so much energy to go around and still maintain a functioning organization. If there was nothing else to pay attention to, if everyone agreed that moving to networks was the right direction, and if the needed energy was available, the transition might be only slightly difficult. If even half those conditions were met it might be survivable, but that would be an ideal situation. The point here is that a successful transition from hierarchy to network is contingent upon multiple factors being in alignment.

If the transition from hierarchy to network manages to find sufficient energy, focus, and commitment from organizational members, there is still the lingering and very difficult question of how to include in the transition shifts in how people lead, manage, supervise, design, interact, and understand their role in the organization. These knowledge and behavior-based changes are what really transition an organization from a hierarchy to a network. It's not just an organizational chart in a handbook.

It may be worth saying at this point that I am not against networks. In fact, I think they are the organizational form emergency management and the emergency services often need, especially when operating in complex environments. However, as I have expressed moving directly from hierarchies to networks is implausible if not undesirable. The gap is too large, too contingent on human change, and generates too much vulnerability as the organization moves from one form to the next while continuing to respond to disturbances. I am sure there are cases of successful transitions from hierarchies to networks. However, the alignment of factors necessary for the success of transitions is uncommon, nor is attempting to move directly from hierarchy to network best practice.

In Defense of Hierarchies

Networks might be ideal, but hierarchies are what we have. For now. This alone is not a good enough reason to defend hierarchies, but it is not inconsequential. If transitioning directly from hierarchies to networks is not feasible, then what can be done to create more responsive organizations? I think we start by asking what can we do with what we have. The question then becomes, "How can hierarchies be improved today so that we might have networks in some distant tomorrow?" (Thinking of David Snowden here).  We can begin to intend toward networks. This intention is somewhat open-ended as we will be continually surprised by what is learned in the process and fed back into it. Exactly what the desirable "end state" will look like will also be unclear.

In defense of hierarchies, I think we need to consider what is the villain here is in the issue of organizational responsiveness. Is it organizational form? Or is it how we act inside organizational forms? What if the problem is not the form of organization but how is inhabited? The distributed control promised by networks can shrivel up into centralization with the wrong leadership. In the same way, it can be conceived that the centralization of authority found in hierarchies can be distributed throughout the organization. The contention here is that hierarchies are not the problem. It's not hierarchies; it's us.

Making the Most of Hierarchies

In an effort to begin moving toward networks while also living contently with hierarchies, a smaller transition in expectations about how hierarchies function might make a reasonable first step. Expectations need not be structural at first, though they can be codified into the organization's design later on. As it is envisioned here, such a shift begins at the top of the hierarchy with a movement (but not necessarily all the way as this would involve destabilizing change) from expectations of total knowledge and predictability towards expectations of incomplete knowledge and unpredictability. Seeking to change expectations in this way may begin to move an organization along the desired trajectory toward networks.  The central result of the shift in expectations described in the above is the beginning of a more responsive organization. Having Incident Commanders and general staff being comfortable sitting (for however briefly) with incomplete knowledge as operations shift in response to environmental fluctuations in unpredictable ways is a step in the right direction, no matter how small of a movement it is at first. The familiar hierarchy and key features like the ability to make unilateral decisions when necessary remain, while actions in the structure begin to shift.

The changes at the top of the organization make shifts in expectations further down the structure possible. In the middle of the organization, a shift in expectations may take place in how direction is given. Those who tie the top and bottom of the organization together at the middle of the hierarchy may seek a shift from the expectation of enforcing direction to the expectation of playing lead roles in participatory decision-making processes. Another shift may take place in how middle-level actors expect to carry out their roles from communicating direction to the expectation of interpreting directives in context. These transitions in expectations further build toward the responsive organization mentioned earlier by distributing a degree of decision-making power and allowing for the shaping of objectives to meet context.

Expectations may also shift at the operational level. Similar to the middle of the organization, frontline employees may begin moving from the expectation of mainly implementing directives, to participating in their development to align with external factors. The goal of this shift in expectations is to create an environment where there is a greater possibility of aligning the objectives of the organization with environmental conditions.


This post has endeavored to advocate for hierarchies with the project of transitioning from hierarchies to networks in the background. The point is made that organizational form is not the central antagonist to organizational performance. Rather, the culprit is how we act in organizational forms.

Hierarchies are defended here not only because they currently exist and are engrained in practice, but also because the alternative of moving to network forms of organization is problematic. The idea of improving hierarchies by shifting expectations of how they work was introduced. Shifts in expectations at the top, middle, and bottom of the organizational chart may produce a hierarchy that functions more effectively in dynamic environments. Improving hierarchies focuses on building on what already is in use and has the potential to be enhanced. At the same time, the goal of making hierarchies better builds towards the goal of network organizational forms by beginning to distribute control through gradually shifting expectations.


Writing this post was an interesting experience. It helped to deepen my knowledge of organizations and how they might change.  In many ways, it stands as an experiment (and a bit of a jest). I have long held the idea that network organizations ought to prevail in emergency management and emergency services. It was an interesting exercise to take an inverse position and favor hierarchies. Writing this post provided the space to think about organizational transitions, which was at the heart of it. It seems the way in which a transition will be facilitated does not always receive the attention the end state does. In the context of moving from hierarchies to networks, there is a large space to navigate between point A and point B. Considerable thought needs to be given to how this space should be navigated and how quickly. I suggested that human factors in addition to time, focus, energy, and levels of commitment determine how difficult this transition will be. Consideration of the prior led me to think that the first transition we should concern ourselves with is improving hierarchies.