Hierarchies to #Hashtags | Jon Barnes piece | Hyperisland

Hierarchies to #Hashtags: How organizations might be paving the way for democratic innovation

Ask yourself this… What would the world look like if the internet would have been invented before democracy?

I have long been interested, even obsessed with the idea that open technology could be the great leveler the world needs. That it could bring about accountability through transparency, and Good through a more direct and shared form of democracy. I still believe this, but rather than as a prediction of how the world will be, it is now a hope for how the world could be.

We are at a point in human evolution where we not only have incredible technology at our fingertips, we also have examples of methods of organization which are far more balanced and in line with our fundamental human rights. Ways which are not only fairer, also allow for faster, more direct, decentralized forms of decision making. They allow for more radical change and they are mathematically less risky. In an age where all of this is at our disposal, we now have the possibility to move beyond settling for Churchillian quotes about democracy being the worst form of government except for all others. This is a period in human history that could see us create new models of governance. Maybe a form of uber-democracy? Who knows…

Unknown consequences

I find this moment in history as scary as I find it exciting. Britain has just voted to leave the EU with consequences which seemingly nobody truly understands. The UK and the EU are increasingly indefinable entities. There is a rise in publicly elected leaders with extreme right wing views, both in the US and across Europe. Conflicts in the Middle East have not only intensified, they have spread and deepened. Revolutions and coups across Northern Africa and the Middle East have become common place. The waves of economic scarcity and abundance seem to be shorter and sharper. Governments of all kinds are either censoring or spying on their citizens, even the ‘good guys’. Terrorist groups are more and more prevalent in the media. Companies like Facebook run algorithms which are inevitably shaping important political debates.

As we go on, a 14-year old named Jack Andraka may have found a cure for cancer partly thanks to a Google search. Wikipedia pretty much makes the sum of all human knowledge available freely to anybody in the world, as long as they can get online. Governments are being forced to be increasingly transparent due to the work of famous leakers such as Edward Snowden. Groups of Anonymous hackers from around the world can stand up for causes they deem worthy… etc. And in some instances trigger not inconsiderable reform.

From hierarchies to #hasthags

So I am not sure if the world is better or worse, but it is definitely different and it is getting increasingly different, more and more quickly. Furthermore, it is not just different on the surface, it is different in the underlying fabric of how humanity is organized, how power is distributed, how we interact, and how information is shared. We now have the evolutionary context to genuinely move from hierarchy to networks, or as I like to say – from hierarchy to hashtags. This shift is deeply disruptive not only because of the effect it has on businesses from various industries, or job markets, but also because it puts in question our deeper fundamental human needs. It puts into question the unspoken social norms which still dictate our day to day. We may have almost moved away from kings and queens to elected governments, but the underlying assumptions have not shifted that much. We still have bosses and presidents, hierarchies, status and power. All ‘givens’ in the social fabric of the past century. The legal, political and organizational systems we are living in were created in a world which is gone. We are running on old software and it’s time to upgrade.

From powerful people, to powerful processes

The technological time we find ourselves in, however, now creates a genuine alternative. A context where we would no longer get to vote for a pool of electoral candidates as small as 0.01%. A context where perhaps we no longer need to be at the whim of the few. Or at least a context where we can have more influence over how things are decided. Technology is now there so that everybody can contribute to deciding on how we decide. I believe there is a true power shift happening in the world, and I hope this will go from powerful people to powerful processes, ones that are highly participative. There is of course just cause to be extremely scared of what could come, but I think there is equal cause to focus on the opportunities this gives us to create the kind of society we would like to live in.

The world is changing at a rate of knots, but the way in which we are governed has not changed in a long, long time. One of the biggest shifts we are seeing is that intelligence is in many ways distributed, but power is still centralized with Central Governments and Central Banks. The idea of centralization though largely belongs to the old world. Centralization adds structure, bureaucracy, distance, hierarchy and all of the above are highly fallible. The recent paradigm shift doesn’t necessarily require this. In fact, in some circles, the idea of anything centralized is seen as highly dangerous and irresponsible. Here is an example from another field. In IT, the idea of centralization creates what is known as a ‘single point of failure’. A single point of failure “is a part of a system that, if it fails, will stop the entire system from working. SPOFs are undesirable in any system with a goal of high availability or reliability, be it a business practice, software application, or other industrial system”(1). This is why businesses often diversify, so if one domino falls the others do not all come toppling down.


Decentralized systems tend to be faster-moving. Faster at reaching mass adoption, constantly improving through iteration, and far less volatile as there is no single point of failure. The open source movement is a perfect example of this. Take Linux as an example. It is on more computer hardware platforms than any other operating system and with Android operating systems being based on Linux, this means that the open source operating system is on most of the world’s phones. Mad! The idea that a non-profit, freely available piece of work becomes one of the leaders in a world dominated by huge organizations such as Apple, Google or Facebook.

Other incredible examples of decentralized systems growing exponentially and often providing better service are AirBnb, Kickstarter and Uber. But we are just at the very beginning of other peer-to-peer technologies with huge potential, such as driverless cars, blockchains and mesh networking. These models are based on the principles which underpin the future of our society, and there are organizations that could be ahead of the curve in terms of adopting this social technology. Principles that not only provide the context for a more spiritually prosperous society, but which also help organizations to be faster, more sustainable and less volatile.

Distributed organizations: an indicator of a future social system

Let us look at some of these principles through the lens of macro-political events and see how these examples are closely reflected in evolutionary organizational cultures. Take the actions of WikiLeaks or Edward Snowden for instance. Whilst there is much debate as to the moral merit of leaking highly sensitive state documents, there is little argument as to the need for our governments to be highly accountable for their behaviors. Information is power, and I believe the levels of transparency made possible by the web will help us to rebalance this, and keep individuals true and accountable. While the examples of this being the case at a governmental level may be few and far between, there is no shortage of inspiring examples at an organizational level. Pioneers like Semco and organizations like Buffer, for instance, have created radically transparent organizational cultures that enable the entire business to learn from everybody’s activity at a faster rate than would have ever been possible in a centralized system.

We cannot mention the impact of the technology on a political level without mentioning examples of events such as the Arab Spring, a revolution which would not have been possible on its scale or speed if it were not for smartphones and social networking. Abstracting from the event itself is perhaps where our lessons for the way we work lie. Huge numbers of people acting without a central authority, able to gather around a cause they believe in, in order to create huge change. This is the same way groups like Anonymous are said to be operating, gathering around issues they deem worthy. If the crowd gets behind it, it can happen. While these examples may seem extremely organic, there are more structured illustrations within the commercial world with Automatic, Spotify, Holacracy, Zappos and other self-managed systems. In the words of Frederic Laloux “the age of the internet has precipitated a new worldview – one that can contemplate the possibility of distributed intelligence instead of top-down hierarchy”(2). In some ways, organizations are working in such innovative ways, that they could be in fact the test beds for a blueprint of the future of society at large.

Commercial benefits of distribution: innovation and stability

While the human benefits of self-management, transparency and agility may be easy to grasp, the commercial benefits are often less obvious and for some even dubious. “Isn’t it just chaos?!” ask those who do not want to lose their control and “Don’t you need to be careful?!” is a question often asked by those who have something to hide. What are the commercial benefits then? There are many, but in this short article I focus on the two most critical ones, as they link to everything else.

The clearest of benefits is probably innovation. Innovation requires many factors including empowerment (to take initiative), emotional safety (to make mistakes and take risks) and a learning culture (made more likely when all work is made visible). A comparison of dinosaurs and disruptors may help illustrate this best. Take that famous unverified myth that Nokia had created a product very similar to the iPhone long before the iPhone was even launched. It just did not make it through the levels of hierarchy. On the other side of the coin, a friend of mine who works at Facebook says it is a real meritocracy. If you have a good idea, people gather around it and will help you make it happen. Even their building in Palo Alto is ‘hackable’ so it can be configured for the need of the time. It is no coincidence that a lot of the world’s leading innovation is coming from companies that are also experimenting with innovative ways of working. It is not just about bean bags and ping pong tables.

In a world which is moving so rapidly, many say even exponentially, innovation is a premise for success. In fact, I would go as far as saying it is a premise for mere survival and stability, and this is where one of the biggest misconceptions of evolved organizations comes in.

Many see distributed organizations as chaotic and unstable. But quite the opposite, it could be a simple matter of framing what is risk and what is not. Somebody far more competent in math might be better suited to make this argument for me. It seems to me that the sayings describing it best are ‘having all eggs in one basket’ versus ‘spreading your bets’. Which is the most risky? As discussed earlier, centralized systems are hugely risky and more exposed to volatility. The benefit of a decentralized system is not only that the risk is spread, but also that the system can benefit from both success and stress. When there is a failure in a small pocket of the organization, that lesson can spread throughout the whole organism in the same way that all driverless cars benefit from the lessons of a single car’s mistakes. In that sense, the more happening at a micro level – the more the system benefits at a macro level.


Graph extracted from the draft of Jon’s upcoming book Democracy Squared; http://democracysquared.io

Starting small

Finally, let me go back to where I started from. I believe that the time has come to start moving towards far more direct, far more empowered, and far more distributed modes of organization. Both connected and social technologies create a context for new models that allow each individual to have a bigger impact on the world they live in, in a way that also benefits the whole. Cascading, centralized and autocratic systems which were made common practice during the industrial revolution may have been fit for purpose when trying to scale an organization in the analog world, but in the networked world we have new tools. It is time to use them and to prototype with these models so that we can gradually replicate them for the way we organize society at large.

Leaving a better world for future generations relies on us making this a priority. We must carry on the work of past generations who fought for democracy by evolving this for our current context, to shape soulful societies based on freedom and equality. This means working with both the context we live in – i.e. the structures and systems we live and work in – and the cultures we nurture, or the beliefs and behaviors manifested in these contexts. Since the world of work has such a huge impact on both these things and takes up so much of our time, I see no better place to put my energy than into making work work for everybody. I invite you to do the same.


(1) Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Single_point_of_failure
(2) Laloux, Frederic, Reinventing organizations: A Guide to Creating Organizations Inspired by the Next Stage of Human Consciousness, Nelson Parker, 2014

Jon Barnes is a speaker at Hyper Island and a co-founder of Flux, helping to re-design organizations and change cultures for an evolved social context. He speaks and consults in organizational change and is a guest lecturer in Organizational Evolution & Digital Transformation on HEC Paris’ Exec MBA programme. Here Jon shares a modified extract of his upcoming book (democracy)2: what if the internet had been invented before democracy.