Decision-making structures of organisations

Recently I read Steve Denning's article about moving away from hierarchical organisational structures. However, I found myself confused about the difference between heterarchy, and responsible autonomy, two alternate forms of polyarchy in opposition to the tradition of hierarchy.

After some research, I found the excellent book Power and Organisations and Wikipedia provided clearer and sharper distinctions of the terms. I've taken the liberty of summarising them below:

  • Hierarchy: A system where members higher in the structure have greater power and privilege
    "The paradigm of a sovereign master and commander is almost second nature. It provides an implicit and pervasive model [for] business leaders."
  • Heterarchy:A system with multiple, dynamic power structures that distribute and check the privilege and decision-making of participants
    "[Heterarchy is about] enabling cooperation and fostering coevolution, learning and innovation ... [seeing] strength rather than division [in diversity]."
  • Responsible autonomy: A system where groups act independently but are accountable for their actions
    "[Responsible autonomy flourishes] where it is encapsulated within rules that are widely understood, transparent [and that for accountability] there is audit and disputed determination by some independent and third party held in good standing..."
  • (Quotes are from Power and Organisations.)

Gerald Fairtlough (the original proponent) is quoted as saying, "I am not able to prove there are no further ways, but no one has been able to show me another ... every actual organisation is a mix of [the three models] -- but in widely varying proportions". He even coined a term to indicate the model's completeness: triarchy.

I'm not satisfied by this, however. It feels like a cop-out to present "three forms", but then claim them to be a continuum, particularly when they aren't in direct opposition (for example, homoarchy is the opposite of heterarchy, not hierarchy).

Rather, I feel it's necessary to understand the attributes of each decision-making model, which enables their description as points within a multi-dimensional model, rather than as a continuum of extremes in their own right. For this purpose, I have developed the four As model for decision-making, where there are four possible dimensions of control:

  1. Authority: Controls on who has the power to make decisions
  2. Accountability: Controls on what is to be achieved in response to a decision
  3. Autonomy: Controls on how actions are taken in response to a decision
  4. Area: Controls on which decisions are determined to be in scope

In my view, this provides a more nuanced view when describing decision-making. In most private companies, for example, directors have full authority and autonomy, but only within the area of that company's business. And they are only able to retain that decision-making power if they meet certain accountabilities.

We can then reformulate Fairtlough's three models as follows:

Hierarchy describes an organisation where accountability is determined by a single person, ie the chief, who then delegates authority and a degree of autonomy within a partial or whole area of the organisation to subordinates.

Heterarchy is a model of shared authority, where accountability must be voluntarily accepted by participants, and delegations of autonomy and areas of responsibility are granted through some form of majority mandate.

Responsible autonomy completely removes authority over individual groups except by the third party arbiter in a very limited scope to ensure adherence to the rules of participation in the system.

I feel the model has merit, and I haven't seen anything similar in the literature. But I may be mistaken. Do you think this has merit? Are there any alternate models describing systemic decision-making structures that already exist?

Did you know...

Our expertise in complex systems analysis, combined with a deep understanding of technology and modern, agile management and leadership techniques makes knowquestion uniquely positioned to find strategic solutions to your tough problems. Contact us today.


Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <small> <blockquote> <cite> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd> <br>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

More information about formatting options