In traditional hierarchies, authority and energy move vertically. They invite top-down meddling from bosses and bottoms-up dependency from employees who “bump up” difficult issues to avoid risk. Hierarchies don’t manage cross-functional work or processes well since their natural flow is horizontal. Working wider is highly dependent on horizontal flows between often widely spaced participants.
An alternative approach is what I call the “Center-Edge” organization. I observed this when researching Open Source software efforts such as Linux. Open Source software depends on volunteers who contribute their time and effort and eschew hierarchy. Without calling it that, I have since seen essentially the same model used by those who lead wider collaborations within corporations.
Center-Edge organization structures are not completely flat but nor are they just a low-profile hierarchy. They came about because Open Source programmers found that making decisions in a totally flat structure wasn’t the problem as much as making any decision stick. The response was creating a small group of acknowledged experts in what I call the center Center to ratify, communicate and commit decisions.
The Center sets policy that Edges activate. In contrast to a hierarchy where decision rights increase at each level, the Center’s decision rights are specific and purposively constrained to a limited set. Effective Center leaders spend much of their time helping the Edges connect with each other and drive policy enforcement locally. In line with the voluntary nature of Open Source efforts, Center leaders operate as servants to the Edge.
The Edges do the work and are in closest contact with the environment (customers, partners, etc.). They have responsibility for refreshing their plans, progress and problems with the entire structure. They are internally task focused and pro-active in reaching out to engage other Edges without going through the Center. Their autonomy is limited by their responsibilities to synchronize with other Edges
This structure is dependent on two practices: transparency and engagement. Transparency makes the issues and/or basis for resolution visible to enable broad engagement. Creating consistent engagement requires a robust set of citizenship norms. Unlike the hierarchy where one can abdicate to those in higher authority, the Center-Edge structure requires Center and Edge players to be pro-active.