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Blog entry posted by anciendaze, Oct 10, 2011.

Hierarchiology, the study of hierarchies, is essential to modern science, in which hierarchies play a dominant role. Let me discuss a few fundamental principles of this subject.

First, the purpose of any hierarchy is to separate authority from responsibility. This, for example, allows political leaders who start wars and generals who direct them to survive while thousands of foot soldiers perish. Second, hierarchies serve to amplify or attenuate facts and opinions.

In any hierarchy the natural flow of opinion is from the top down. Meanwhile, raw facts must scale each level of administration like salmon fighting a swift current. The natural result is that those who dwell on Olympian heights are constantly surrounded by dense clouds of opinion which only part occasionally to allow thunderbolts to be thrown at those below.

At that elevation facts are scarce, but those that reach this spawning ground have been winnowed by a rigorous process of selection to make certain they will conform to opinion. The result is that leaders are seldom aware of things every grunt and groundpounder knows . This is by itself a strong argument against conspiracies run from the top. It is hard to direct a conspiracy with a bag over your head.

My rule of thumb is that anyone called a leader is entirely dependent on staff, (provided only that he is far enough up to have a staff not made of wood.) A corollary is that those who rise from the ranks become incapable of critical thinking regarding facts -- not so opinions. (Of course management appointed from outside may never have had any critical judgment about pertinent facts to begin with.) This means they must depend on experts with primary skills in converting facts to opinion and vice versa, often using arguments based on authority.

A second argument stems from the fundamental property of organizational inertia, a misnomer for which I lack a convenient alternative. Inertia would seem to imply a tendency to remain in motion, like a moving train. In fact, it is possible to slow or impede an organization very easily from inside. Ill try to explain.

Getting any large organization with hierarchical structure to do anything it is not currently doing is roughly as much fun as persuading a football team to kick a dead whale along a beach barefoot. Conversely, preventing action is easily done by a single intransigent individual on a committee.

My distinguished predecessor in the field, C. Northcote Parkinson, called this individual the Abominable No Man. This was back in those halcyon days before bureaucracy reached its current full efflorescence.

Todays obstructions are accomplished through the magic of interlocking directorates, as pioneered by American business a century ago. (This was based on the British model of an "old boy network" derived from "public" schools which were actually private. Oh, don't expect me to explain; find a Brit. When he gets through ask him about Morris dancing, change ringing and "Chumley". Maybe you can explain them to me.) A clique of three people can obstruct most large organizations by tying any proposed action up in dispute in several committees. Half a dozen, well-placed, could bring the entire federal government to a standstill, if this had not already happened. (Getting it moving takes us back to that dead whale.)

One might assume the reasons for obstruction could be identified and overcome. This would be a naive and serious misjudgment. To prevent useful argument and possible resolution of the problem it is vital that different objections be raised in different committees. These need not be consistent, indeed should not be, to accomplish their purpose. The ideal selection of objections will be such that any resolution of one must violate another.

This may cause you to exclaim, "How can anyone solve problems in such an environment?" This shows that you miss the point entirely. In a hierarchical bureaucracy, the important activity is not solving problems, but routing them. Solving a problem only gains you a few brownie points. People may praise you, but anyone with experience will know how easy it is to drum up bogus support through backroom deals.

Far better to get double action out of the problem by routing it to an opponent inside the organization, or sending it to a competing organization. This means your opponent is now faced with an intractable problem while you can take credit for disposing of it. You simply need to show that it was never your kind of problem at all. This takes you from scoring brownie points to counting coups, a mature adult preoccupation. Solving problems wastes valuable resources which could be recycled.

About the Author

As the name suggests, I am old and dazed. The avatar illustrates my rule of thumb: "Hang on! This ride isn't over."
  1. Enid
    Isn't it a constant problem of life - the political theorists still writing about whether the checks and balances are sufficiently in place to curb any excess in democratic governments even. Churchill surrounded by needed advisers - I assume it takes something of a special man to see the strenghts and weaknesses of all about and act knowing this on a balance of probabilities. He decision could be wrong and indeed he did make a few errors. But you right the "old boy network" does still operate in some areas in the UK (eg the medical establishment) - it probably still holds sway in institutions etc. (everywhere). Can we say roll up Mr Shakespeare - a field day with what goes on now even if kings are no more.