Author Marilyn Jacobson, Ph.D. wrote a guest post here on The People Equation called Mapping the Passage to an Upside Down Organization. I was intrigued by this imagery – that of an upside-down organizational pyramid, so I reached out to Dr. Jacobson for an interview to learn more. I’m very grateful that she agreed, because what follows is an account of nearly thirty years of organizational development consulting from a professional with a front-row seat. Many thanks, Marilyn!
This is a three-part series that chronicles the journey executives take when they decide to flip the pyramid.
First up: what exactly is flipping the pyramid, and why would an executive want to do that?
JVM: I’m curious about the title of the book – Turning the Pyramid Upside Down. What do you mean by that and why is it important in what you call today’s global and hyper-connected business climate?
MJ: For nearly thirty years, I have consulted with many different types of organizations. Over time, I began to notice trends across the entire spectrum of the different people that I was consulting with. What I observed is that leaders at the top of organizations can sometimes be very intimidating. Many leaders were striving to sustain “position power” and in doing so, the atmosphere became tense [in their organizations].
Instead of people feeling a sense of engagement, a sense of inspiration, a sense of confidence in their workplace, they felt that they were doing the work of two people in order to keep the organization lean. And I began to see how sad that was because it was destructive and it was costly.
There was a message here: the hierarchy was getting in the way.
JVM: And so?
MJ: And so, organizations needed to do something to redistribute power. [C-level] leaders can no longer face today’s global environment with only their strategic and creative thoughts. To lead in today’s global and hyper-connected business climate, companies must flip the pyramid, redistribute power and get all employees involved. And that became the title of the book.
JVM: What are the benefits of turning the pyramid upside down?
MJ: The push [that executives feel] to “make numbers” to maintain that power at the top and sustain bonuses and all of the rest of it has caused an impasse that has become ever more obvious. If [executives] keep going back to numbers that are just a little higher than last year, it’s not going to propel [their companies] forward; it’s going to stall them.
Leaders need to focus on doing new and innovative things – that is the future. If your organization is focusing solely on best practices (which are things that worked in the past), they are not likely to work in the future. So you really have to get as many people as possible concentrating on new ideas – and by flipping the pyramid you get more minds tackling the big problems.
JVM: So the flipping of the pyramid then has to do with the redistribution of creativity, idea making, problem solving?
MJ: All of the above, yes. Of course, teams have been around for a long time; that’s not new. However, in the past, usually the leader or executive has said, “This is the problem and I want you to go and work on this problem.” Or “This is the problem and this is the solution, go execute it.”
Oftentimes, the team never had a chance to say, “Well you know, I don’t really see the problem that way. I would like to reframe the problem.” That empowerment was lacking. Now, by flipping he pyramid, you have people not only executing, but you now have them thinking and being a part of it.
JVM: Thanks, Marilyn, for that interesting take on the organizational structure – not only is the pyramid “flattening” it’s being flipped.
Up next in the series: A Shift in Leadership Thinking – where Marilyn and I talk about the mental shift leaders must take in order to have a successful upside-down pyramid philosophy.