Hierarchies and planning

A few thoughts on picking the right structure for the activity:

I’m not pro- or anti-hierarchy. I think there are times when hierarchical group structures make sense, and times when collaborative/flattened structures are better. I’ve been noticing that groups struggle a lot with this issue (particularly groups that want to keep an open structure, like RCC or BarCamp). So here are some things to consider:

  1. Smaller groups are more agile. Dilbert has covered that in detail (it’s funny because it’s true). The more people in on a decision, the longer it will take. Including more people does not guarantee that everyone’s views are considered appropriately, either, because not all people are assertive in large conversations.
  2. If something has to get done, then one or two people need to be responsible for monitoring it. I’ve been in too many situations where people assume that “the group” will be able to make sure that all the important details are covered. Sorry, but this doesn’t actually work. It’s like organizing a potluck: you’ll end up with three kinds of jello salad, brownies, and five bottles of cheap wine. This may or may not be the dinner anyone wanted to eat.
  3. Planning committees and other active sub-groups do not have to be permanent, unchanging structures. Maybe right now you need a couple of people to scout out locations or call sponsors and report back. Later you’ll need people to clean up, but it might be enough to announce that at the start of the event and post a sign-up sheet. Be flexible. Don’t turn it into some kind of clique or cabal.
  4. Also related: not everyone has to participate at the same level. Some people will want to be involved in every aspect of planning. Some people just want to show up. There are many levels in between. Keep this in mind as you sort out what work needs to be done.
  5. If the larger group involved can come to a consensus on the goals of the activity, you’ll be able to act in a much more focused way. Use the goals as a boundary line to ask “Is this inside or outside of the thing we want to do?”
  6. The more hierarchical and specialized the group structure, the clearer your guidelines for communication need to be. This is also true of urgent issues or those that have a strong impact on people’s lives. Maybe you have three people researching code management and bug tracking systems, and they can give a summary at the big group meeting next month. Maybe you’re involved in disaster planning, which has very strict guidelines for organization and communication. Ask: “Who needs this information? How frequently do they need updates in order to do their job (and to feel in the loop)? Who should be giving feedback?”
  7. Give people just walking in a handle on the activity. It needs to be easy to figure out what things can be done next, or who has the first aid kit, or who will be planning the marketing effort. If the newcomer can’t walk in, find something to do, and figure out who to ask more specific questions, they won’t stick around.

This is phrased in terms of a group planning a single event, but I think the same considerations are important to a lot of different activities. Think about how this affects your company or department at work. Or your user group. Or your parents’ 50th wedding anniversary party. The basic principles are the same any time you have a group of people and something you want to do.

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