The extent to which a community is capable of learning depends on the level of social friction induced by social power hierarchies. Unsurprisingly all effective approaches for continuous improvement (Deming 1982) such as Kaizen (Imai 1997), the Toyota Production System, Waigaya, etc. and approaches for innovation such as Open Space (Owen 2008), the Manifesto for Agile Software Development, collaborative design, etc. share one noteworthy common principle:
The belief in the existence and relevance of social hierarchies must be suspended.The Beauty of Collaboration at Human Scale: Timeless patterns of human limitations
“You are intelligent,” he said. “That’s the newer of the two characteristics, and the one you might have put to work to save yourselves. You are potentially one of the most intelligent species we’ve found, though your focus is different from ours. Still, you had a good start in the life sciences, and even in genetics.”
“What’s the second characteristic?”
“You are hierarchical. That’s the older and more entrenched characteristic. We saw it in your closest animal relatives and in your most distant ones. It’s a terrestrial characteristic. When human intelligence served it instead of guiding it, when human intelligence did not even acknowledge it as a problem, but took pride in it or did not notice it at all …”
“That was like ignoring cancer. I think your people did not realize what a dangerous thing they were doing.”Dawn (The Xenogenesis Trilogy Book 1)
By definition, hierarchies confer power on specific groups and individuals, with immediate effects on the ability of a group to learn and adapt to a changing environment (Deming 1984a & 1984b). Any form of hierarchy or power indicates dampened feedback loops. Power can be understood as the privilege of not needing to learn. Evolutionary biologists David Sloan Wilson and Edward O Wilson (2007) frame the effect of social power gradients in terms of the tension between altruism and selfishness:
Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups. Everything else is commentary.
This insight was well understood for several hundred thousand years of human cultural evolution. The social norms in egalitarian cultures create the psychological safety needed for altruism to flourish. Early farming communities were based on egalitarian principles. Even throughout the last five thousand years of recorded history, if we make a conscious effort to leave behind the cultural bias from the modern industrial era, we have to acknowledge the existence of a rich tapestry of societies without rigid hierarchical structures.
As long as social norms in our modern societies are shaped by an economic paradigm that rewards social gaming, individuals can improve their odds of success by adopting psychopathic behavioural patterns, and by claiming and taking credit for the work of others. Depending on one’s level of empathy, beyond the façade of social success, mental health suffers more or less in the process.The Beauty of Collaboration at Human Scale: Timeless patterns of human limitations
Autism is a crucially, vitally, urgently needed human variation—a powerful corrective and counterbalance to the hierarchical, dominance-based mentality currently driving human society and the planet off the rails.
It makes the strongest possible case that autistic/neurodiverse thinking and collaborating styles have a critically important role to play as an antidote to the currently dominant neurotypical social-ranking/dominance approach—a critically important role to play in bringing modern society back into some kind of sustainable balance, functionality, social justice, and sanity (which had always been the human norm for countless generations).The Beauty of Collaboration at Human Scale: Timeless patterns of human limitations
Because autists reject all forms of social power we end up traumatised. Unless we have autistic people in our environment that support and nurture our sense of agency and intrinsic motivations, trauma may prevent us from learning how to trust others and build eye level relationships. Note that the concept of a “flat hierarchy” is a neuronormative oxymoron. Either you tolerate social power gradients or you don’t.The Beauty of Collaboration at Human Scale: Timeless patterns of human limitations
Healthy societies have cultural practices that actively maintain a psychologically safe environment and thereby catalyse the free flow of new knowledge, new questions, and new ideas. All social power gradients dampen feedback loops and thereby compromise learning and the development of collective intelligence. The human capacity for language has co-evolved with our capacities for curiosity and mutual aid, likely weakening the role of social dominance hierarchies in human cultures.
In a psychologically safe cultural environment the neurochemical rewards for collaboration are greater than the neurochemical rewards for dominating others. Perhaps the evolution of collaborative and highly egalitarian cultures was catalysed by the presence of autistic people. Autists lack the drive to dominate, as well as the corresponding drive to comply with the demands of higher ranking primates. Autists retain higher levels of childlike curiosity (neoteny) than their neuronormative cousins.The Beauty of Collaboration at Human Scale: Timeless patterns of human limitations
The widely held belief that social dominance hierarchies reflect an unavoidable law of nature is a convenient ideological tool for maintaining paradigmatic inertia rather than a universal truth. The following dictionary definitions are helpful to dissect and expose the myth:
hierarchy : (a) a system or organisation in which people or groups are ranked one above the other according to status or authority (b) an arrangement or classification of things according to relative importance or inclusiveness
authority : the power to give orders, make decisions, enforce obedience, and influence others
network : a group or system of interconnected people or things
There are two key differences between hierarchies and networks as defined above:
- The connections in a hierarchy form a directed tree, whereas the connections in a network may form any kind of graph
- A hierarchy always depends on a socially accepted ranking or prestige metric, whereas a network only depends on the formal definition of a graph
In other words, hierarchies always have a human social and political aspect shaped by human perception and culture, whereas networks need not. Whilst undoubtedly hierarchies have been part of the social furniture throughout written human history so far, the following observations are worthwhile considering before elevating hierarchy to a fundamental law of human nature, biology, or perhaps even physics:
- Most of what we know about pre-historic human societies points towards highly egalitarian forms of organisation, and to strong social norms against any individual attempts to gain power over others
- The digitally networked world has fundamentally altered human patterns of interaction, and has created information flows that do not adhere to any ranking or prestige metrics – even if there are some who actively attempt to reverse this emergent behaviour within digital networks
- By definition, a hierarchy is a social construct, and like all social constructs, it only functions to the extent that members of a group believe in its relevance and have a shared understanding of the specific rankings within the hierarchy
- All human observations of the biological world are biased by our human perspective, including current cultural baggage relating to hierarchical forms of organisation
- Referring to spatial containment in the physical world as a hierarchical form of organisation is a reflection of human grandiosity bias rather than a reflection of human dominance over the universe
The real challenges with hierarchical forms of organisation result from cultural inertia and from the extreme level to which humans are shaped by specific cultures.
We do not yet have enough evidence to know to what extent it is possible to transform large hierarchically organised social groups into non-hierarchical networks, but there is no shortage of examples (Laloux 2014) of groups that have emerged over the last few decades that operate on a set of principles that do not include a social ranking or prestige metric. It is conceivable that a shift towards non-hierarchical forms of organisation is a generational cultural shift that is only accessible to digital natives and those who are not deeply embedded in traditional pre-digital cultures.The Beauty of Collaboration at Human Scale: Timeless patterns of human limitations
A hierarchical organisation is the antithesis of a learning organisation.
This observation is backed up by evidence from thousands of organisations that strive to improve or establish a culture of innovation. All effective approaches for continuous improvement (such as Kaizen, Toyota Production System, Waigaya, etc.) and innovation (Open Space, collaborative design, etc.) share one common principle: The belief in the existence and relevance of social hierarchies must be suspended This is no accident. By definition, hierarchies confer power on specific groups and individuals, with immediate effects on the ability of a group to learn and adapt to a changing environment. Any form of hierarchy or power indicates dampened feedback loops. Power can be understood as the privilege of not needing to learn.The Beauty of Collaboration at Human Scale: Timeless patterns of human limitations