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  Avoiding The Perverted Inverted Pyramid

If you read from the works of virtually any recognized management guru, you will come across the notion of inverting the organization's hierarchy. The theory goes that by putting more decision-making into the hands of those closest to the "action", organizations will become faster, more adaptive and more effective. Inverting the organizational pyramid brings with it the notion of empowerment, in the service of bener organizations.

Well, that's the theory anyway. If you are a regular reader of our publications, you will be aware that we are firm supporters of inverting the pyramid, empowering staff, and moving responsibility and decision-making down to the people that are in contact with the recipients of government services. But, we do need to put these efforts into the context of real life, and to be aware of the pitfalls that are in our paths.

The truth is that many organizations begin the inverted pyramid journey, but few actually succeed in reaping the benefits of the effort. It seems that far too many organizations are developing flat tires, or simply running out of gas, far from the envisioned destination. We are going to look at ways those organizations and managers end up perverting the inverted pyramid, so that if you are on the journey, you will be less likely to fail in your efforts.

Structural Incompatibility

There is no question that government is arranged in a hierarchical structure, with decision-making, accountability and responsibility vested first in senior executive, and then distributed down the line to other executives or managers. One only has to look at the chain of events that occurs when a public complaint is lodged. Often it will be sent to the Minister, who, with involvement of executive assistants, will pass the concern on to the Deputy Minister, who will, in turn, move the "investigation" to lower levels in the organization. The process is indeed hierarchical and traditional, moving from top to bottom. The bottom line is that, structurally, the Minister, and senior executives are ultimately responsible for what occurs in their bailiwicks. In a sense, since senior officials are held responsible, it is in their own self-interest to be involved in decision-making that may ultimately come back to haunt them, and to use their organizational power to satisfy their own needs and those of people at the top of the traditional pyramid.

So, we run into a basic incompatibility. We have governments structured in traditional hierarchical ways, with power and responsibility at the top. On the other hand we know that customer service decisions are often best made by those at the bottom of the organization. Experience tells us that in almost all cases, where there is a conflict between the notion of empowerment, and the needs and wishes of senior executive, the needs and wishes of executive will prevail. This doesn't necessarily occur as a result of the actual people involved, but simply is a result of working in organizations that are traditionally hierarchical. This traditional structuring places limits on efforts to move power downward. The inverted pyramid can be perverted. The new way of doing things is quickly perceived as window-dressing.

Management Limitations

While structural incompatibilities make inverting the pyramid difficult, there are other powerful and important factors that pervert the process. Many of these, unfortunately, fall into the area of limitations, or short-comings on the part of individual managers and executives.

We know enough about empowerment, team development and leadership to state that empowerment and pyramid inversion require some special qualities on the part of leaders and managers. When these qualities are not sufficiently developed, the process of inverting the pyramid can become stalled. We can identify a number of such competencies or attitudes:

  • perseverance in the face of frustration

  • consistency in terms of decision-making processes

  • trust in the abilities staff

  • genuine desire to share power

  • coaching abilities to help develop core skills on the part of staff

Lack of Development Resources

Inverting the pyramid requires new skill sets on the part of staff that are going to be empowered. The more hierarchical and autocratic an organization is before attempting to invert the pyramid, the more likely necessary skill components will be lacking. It isn't surprising. Some people think that empowering staff will be immediately welcomed by staff, and that given an opportunity, staff will take the opportunity like a duck takes to water. Experience tells us otherwise. Staff will show some degree of cynicism and even resistance. And they will founder at the start, particularly if they are not used to using effective decision-making, problem-solving and consensus building techniques.

Further, staff in the inverted pyramid needs different kinds of information, compared to those in traditional organizations. They need to know the "bigger picture" -- the goals of the organization, its purpose, and how they fit in to them. This enables their decision-making to be consistent with what the organization is trying to accomplish.

When development resources are not allocated to build skills, or where staff are not given the information they require to make empowered decisions, flipping the pyramid will result in poor decisions. Poor decisions tend to force managers and executives to revert back to a top-down way of doing things.

The Most Common Failure Pattern

Generally, when pyramid inversions fail, they don't do so randomly but share a common pattern generally, there are multiple causes for the failure, usually including many or all of the above factors.

Usually, pyramid inversion adventures are initiated by a well meaning manager. The manager introduces the concept to staff, and may also suggest mechanisms to empower staff (e.g. team structure, meetings, etc). While the manager may be enthused about the possibilities, often he or she has not thought out the implications for him/herself. Employee reactions tend to be mixed -- some will be enthusiastic, some neutral, and some cynical or resistant.

Within the new structure, insufficient information will be provided, and as with most changes, some frustration and confusion will result. But what separates the successful inversions from the unsuccessful ones is the ability of the players to resolve the frustration and confusion early on. Failed attempts tend to create more and more frustration, the longer the process continues.

Given insufficient information, and lack of core skills, employees have difficulty making decisions that are acceptable to the manager. What happens is that in most organizations, the fundamental structural incompatibilities regarding responsibility and accountability push the manager into reviewing and/or altering decisions made by staff, or rejecting many suggestions. Staff read this as being inconsistent, and lose faith in the empowerment process.

The final stage of collapse occurs as the manager becomes more frustrated. Initially the manager felt that empowering staff would require less involvement in everyday decisions, since these would be taken on by staff. What really happens is that everything slows down. Decisions are reviewed and re-reviewed. Workload for everyone appears to increase, rather than decrease. At this point many managers eject from the plane.

They begin to "take back" decision-making power, on the assumption that staffs are simply incapable of making effective decisions. Sometimes this "taking-back" is subtle, and the empowerment strategy is slowly eroded until it disappears. Or, the manager simply announces that the experiment has ended. We might note that such defeats often leave the organization worse off than if they hadn't tried at all.

Avoiding Perverting the Inverted Pyramid

Such failures are often avoidable with proper preparation, and well thought out implementation strategies. We look at a few secessions for engineering success.

  1. Recognize that you still work within a hierarchical structure. Lobby your executive for support and changes in the ways they interact with you. Further, when introducing your initiative to staff, indicate that there will be limits on what can be accomplished. In other words, don't create expectations that can't be fulfilled.

  2. Provide empowered staff with the tools they need to take on their new responsibilities. Be prepared, at least initially, to coach and support, or to bring in help from outside. Do not assume that staff will "figure it out".

  3. Persevere. These changes take time, and if you expect changes to occur too quickly, you may give up too early.

  4. Be as consistent as possible. The more often you take over the reins of a decision, the less likely staff will perceive you as being sincere. When you absolutely must make decisions without involving staff, explain why it was necessary.

  5. Make sure that frequent ~checks" are made to see how the process is going. Don't just leave it. Encourage staff to assess and evaluate how the changes are going, and to make suggestions about how to improve it. Make it clear you don't expect everything to be perfect, but the goal is to improve continuously.

  6. Realistically assess your management style and interpersonal skills. Even your non-verbal behavior can derail a pyramid inversion. Be aware of subtle messages you may be sending.

  7. Listen! In the inverted pyramid, the managers listen more than they talk. If nobody wants to talk to you, then search out the causes and fix them.

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