a triarchy press publication

The Three Ways of Getting Things Done
Hierarchy, Heterarchy and Responsible Autonomy in Organisations

by Gerard Fairtlough
Publication date: 4 September 2005
Number of pages: 110
List price: £12.50
Book type: Paperback
ISBN: 0-9550-0810-7
Buy this book

In his youth Gerard Fairtlough, the author of The Three Ways of Getting Things Done, thought, just like everyone else, that hierarchy was a natural and necessary part of organizations. It took years of working for a large multinational organization for him to begin to doubt that this was so, and more years before he started to explore the alternatives to hierarchy.

In the end he has become convinced that it is vital to question hierarchy's inevitability and to develop alternatives to it. Tinkering isn’t enough; huge shifts are needed if our businesses are to become more profitable and creative, if our government agencies are to become more effective, and if our non-governmental organizations are to make real changes in the world and act in a really responsible way.

His method in this book is to expound some general principles and to develop some general models useful in all organizations.

An organization is an entity, is a group of people working together for some purpose. Organization is also an activity, and here the meaning relates to the creation of discipline and order.

He also tells stories about organizations, real and imagined, which illustrate and enliven these principles and models.

Mostly, his arguments are based on organizational learning, on efficiency and effectiveness, on success in achieving organizational purposes, including increased profits for business. But he does not neglect the possibility that alternatives to hierarchy are morally desirable, that they could help people lead better lives.

We must not neglect the possibility that alternatives to hierarchy are morally desirable, that they could help people lead better lives.

In this, his third book on organizations, Gerard takes a radical look at organizational theory and encourages the reader to engage in a new and flexible paradigm for an effective, long-term change in organizational theory and practice.

Table of contents:

  1. Introduction
    1. The Hegemony of Hierarchy
    2. Why I Wrote this Book
    3. The Shape of the Book
  2. A Basis for Hegemony
    1. How Hegemony Works
    2. Genes
    3. Hierarchy in Organizations
    4. The Great Man
    5. Tradition
  3. What Organizations Need
    1. Coordination of Ends and Means
    2. System
    3. Organizational Culture
    4. Leadership
    5. Power
    6. Exit and Voice
    7. Conclusion
  4. The Three Ways of Getting Things Done
    1. Hierarchy
    2. Heterarchy
    3. Responsible Autonomy
    4. Complex Evolving Systems
    5. Encapsulation
    6. Critique
    7. Resolving Disputes
    8. Heterarchy Compared with Responsible Autonomy
    9. Ideal Types
    10. Are There Only Three Ways?
    11. The University of Barchester
  5. Advantages for Each of the Three Ways
    1. Advantages of Hierarchy
    2. Advantages of Heterarchy
    3. The Evolution of Cooperation
    4. Co-Evolution
    5. Pluralism
    6. Using Diverse Talents
    7. Advantages of Responsible Autonomy
  6. Blending the Three Ways
    1. Contingency Theories of Organization
    2. Donaldson's Contingency Theory
    3. The Future of Work
    4. Malone's Contingency Theory
    5. Force-Based Organizations
    6. Size as a Contingency
    7. Conclusion
  7. Drivers of Change
    1. Ideas are Important
    2. Skills
    3. Democracy
    4. Separation of Powers
    5. Job Rotation
    6. Project Leadership
    7. Selection by Lot
    8. Reward Systems
    9. Semco
    10. Enabling Infrastructure
    11. Participation
    12. Things that Help Heterarchy
    13. Things that Help Responsible Autonomy
  8. What is to be Done?
    1. The Time is Ripe
    2. How to Change
    3. The Centre for Computational Biology
    4. TS plc
    5. Save the Planet
    6. The London Classical Orchestra
    7. Heterarchical Practices Illustrated by These Stories
    8. Conclusion


Responsible Autonomy, Bureaucracy, Co-evolution, Complex evolving system, Contingency theory, Critique, Culture, Democracy, Encapsulation, Getting Things Done, Hierarchy, Hegemony, Heterarchy, Leadership, Management, Network , Organization, Pluralism, Power, Separation of powers, System, The three ways, Triarchy.
See Responsible autonomy
Originally from the French: bureau = desk and later = office. Popular use is for cumbersome procedures (‘red tape’) and self-serving administration. Organizational theory follows Max Weber: administrative staff members have clearly defined duties and powers, separate from their personal lives, in a strict hierarchy, and following carefully-defined rules, which enable decentralization. Weber also stresses professionalism of bureaucrats (Weber 1920/1964) Sections 3.2, 6.2
Co-evolution Top
Co-evolution happens when the evolution of something is influenced by the evolution of other things. The emphasis is on the reciprocal interaction of a series of elements within an eco-system. Maturana gives the example of wearing a new pair of shoes - both your feet and the shoes change to accommodate each other (Mitleton-Kelly 2003). Co-evolution is distinguished from adaptation of an element to an external environment, when only the element is considered to change, not the environment. Section 5.4
Complex evolving system (CES) Top
Complex behaviour arises from the intricate inter-twining or inter-connectivity of elements within a system (Mitleton-Kelly 2003). Individuals or elements in a CES, following their own agendas or even acting at random, can create new order and coherence, without any grand design determining their actions. A CES is therefore capable of evolving new forms and capabilities, spontaneously and over time. Section 4.4
Contingency theory Top
Contingency theory holds that organizations are fully effective only when their internal structures, procedures and cultures are suited to the contingencies or circumstances they encounter. Organizations are shaped by contingencies, because they need to adapt to them in order to avoid loss of performance. In other words, contingencies determine organizational characteristics. Contingency theory is particularly concerned with the stability of organizations’ markets, their technological environments, their size and their strategy (Donaldson 2001) Sections 6.1, 6.2
Critique Top
The root word is Greek: kritos = a judge. For organizations, the term means the evaluation or appraisal of the performance of autonomous sub-units against a variety of criteria. Critique includes audit, financial analysis, social and environmental accountability. It requires clearly-defined criteria and regular review. Section 4.6
Culture Top
The culture of an organization is the way it works. It includes the shared assumptions of the organization’s members, often tacit rather than explicit, and the values, language and mental models they share. Raymond Williams writes that culture is one of the most complicated words in English (Williams 1976). It can mean growing things (e.g. agriculture) and hence human development. It can mean refinement or taste. And it can mean a particular way of life. The last meaning is the one most relevant for study of organizations. Section 3.3
Democracy Top
The root words are Greek: demos = people, kratos = rule. Political theory distinguishes between representative democracy (the election of representatives, who then make decisions) and direct democracy (decisions made at a town meeting or by referendum). In organizations, the term can mean actions that are non-authoritarian, consultative, and respectful of everyone’s rights and opinions. It can also mean decision-making by voting, e.g. in professional partnerships. The latter is the meaning preferred in this book. Sections 6.3, 7.3
Encapsulation Top
Amitai Etzioni uses the term for the societal process that allows markets to flourish. A capsule is created within which market interactions take place. Examples of institutions that create the capsule are: laws that enforce contracts, protect property and prevent deception and corruption; legal incorporation of limited liability companies, with a requirement for regular and accurate reporting; well-regulated and open stock and commodity exchanges; and means for resolution of disputes. In this book I adapt the term to mean the procedures and rules within organizations that create the conditions for responsible autonomy of certain sub-units. Some of the procedures will be like those in society; others will be specific to organizations. Sections 4.5, 7.13.
Getting things done Top
A term originally used by the Coverdale Organization to mean purposive action, such as performing an organizational function, defining or carrying out tasks. The things that are done in an organization should, of course, be those that further the organization’s purpose. Section 3.1
Heterarchy Top
The root words are Greek: hetero = different, kratos= rule. The term was introduced into social science by James Ogilvy. It means multiple or dispersed rule. Heterarchy has a balance of powers rather than the single rule of hierarchy. No one person or group is dominant. Decisions are reached by dialogue rather than by dictat. Influence varies according to the matter being considered and also varies over time. Heterarchy is what happens in everyday interaction between individuals and groups when this is on the basis of reasonable equality. Sections 4.2, 5.2, 7.12
Hierarchy Top
Hierarchy originally meant rule by a priesthood, and the term was also used to refer to the ranks of heavenly beings, such as angels and archangels. Hierarchy today refers to rule by a single, supreme ruler, whose will controls a society or an organization. The supreme ruler passes authority on to a series of lesser rulers, and so on through a pyramid. Because it starts with a single ruler we can call hierarchy ‘single rule’, as opposed to the multiple rule of heterarchy. Sections 4.1, 5.1
Hegemony Top
The term derives from the Greek: hegemon = ruler, often an alien ruler. Its use today is mostly that of Antonio Gramsci, who did not limit its use to direct political control, but used it to describe an overall dominance, leading to enduring ways of seeing the world which are accepted as normal by most people, because they have grown up with these ways, and feel it would be absurd to doubt or question them. Section 2.1
Leadership Top
In organization theory, a leader was traditionally someone (usually officially appointed) who influences, and sometimes inspires, a group or organization in its choice of goals and in their achievement. The concept has since been widened to include sense-making on behalf of a group, the promotion of particular values in a group, and a symbolic role. The idea of ‘dispersed leadership’ moves the focus from heroic individuals towards the development of everyone’s leadership capabilities. A leader is then seen as a sense-maker and facilitator, although inspiration remains important in some situations. Sections 3.4, 7.6
Management Top
The word appears to have two separate roots: management = handling (c.f. manipulate), and management = good housekeeping (French: ménage). Two meanings remain. On one hand, ‘the management’ means those in power in an organization, those who define tasks for others, or those who control others (in contrast to the workers, who carry out tasks defined by managers). On the other hand, management is an activity (preferably a competent one), performed in organizations and in daily life. Management is sometimes contrasted with leadership, the latter being inspirational and the former more mundane. Sections 3.1, 7.1
Network Top
The metaphor of the net, a highly flexible structure with cords and nodes, suggests that mutual influence and communication are spread out in space.
Networking is the exchange of information and influence, in a loosely-coupled, cellular structure, which may be completely informal or partly formalised and facilitated. Manuel Castells writes that our societies are increasingly structured around a bipolar opposition between the self and the net. Networking often depends on electronic technology but is primarily a social phenomenon. A network is predominately a heterarchy, but one without a strong common purpose, which is what an organizational heterarchy should have. Section 4.2
Organization Top
The root word is Greek: organon = tool or instrument. Today the meaning of organization, as an entity, is a group of people working together for some purpose. Organization is also an activity, and here the meaning relates to the creation of discipline and order. Sections 2.3, 3.1
Pluralism Top
In society, pluralism means the existence and toleration of a variety of groups with different ethnic origins, cultures or religions. In organizations, pluralism means valuing individual diversity, whether ethnic or of personal characteristics and skills. An organization can have a strong culture, with a common purpose and shared values, language and mental models, while at the same time seeking pluralism and diversity among its members. Section 5.5
Power Top
Power is necessary to mobilize action. Stewart Clegg argues that power is central to organization and organization is central to power (Clegg 1989). In his view, power is dynamic, being rather like a game. Power arises neither from the individual wills of powerful people nor from social structures but from interactions, usually complex ones. In hierarchies, power depends a lot on threats and inducements. In heterarchies, it depends mainly on persuasion and mutual benefit or mutual obligations. Power in organizations is often concealed, which obscures both the necessity of power in getting things done and the danger that power will corrupt. Section 3.5
Responsible autonomy Top
Autonomy is self-government, self-organization or the absence of external rule. Autonomy is to be contrasted with hierarchy’s single rule and heterarchy’s multiple rule. For autonomy to become responsible autonomy, the absence of external rule must not mean there is no accountability for the outcome of self-organization. With responsible autonomy, the ways in which outcomes are achieved are not externally controlled, but the outcomes are monitored and poor outcomes are sanctioned . Sections 4.3, 4.8, 5.7
Separation of powers Top
This is a term taken from political science, where it means the division or balance of powers and responsibilities within a state. A well-known separation is that between the executive, legislative and judicial functions of government. In a federal state, there is also a separation of powers between the federal level and the level of States (USA), Länder ( Germany) or Provinces ( Canada). In organizations, it means a split of responsibilities and authority between staff and line functions or between central and peripheral units. Sections 4.2, 7.4
System Top
Collins Dictionary gives eleven different meanings for ‘system’, but these fall into two main groups. The meaning of the first group is an orderly way of doing things or of communicating information - today this is often a computerised system. The relevant adjective is ‘systematic’. The meaning of the second group is an entity which, to be properly understood, has to be considered as a whole. For this kind of system, the whole is different from the sum of its parts or, to put it another way, the system is seen to have emergent properties (Checkland 1999). Here the relevant adjective is ‘systemic’. Section 3.2
The three ways Top
The three ways of getting things done in organizations are: hierarchy, heterarchy and responsible autonomy. Sections 3.1, 4.10
Triarchy Top
The combination of the three ways is called triarchy, or triple rule. The study of the workings of organizational triarchies is called triarchics.

Seminars on the theme of 'Getting Things Done';

Authors whose work is prominently cited in 'Getting Things Done', and websites that feature their books, or their consultancy work;

Subject areas




twitter icon Follow us on Twitter
facebook icon Join us on Facebook
Sign up for FREE email updates from Triarchy Press

All Fields Required

Played On Q yet?

On Q is a game designed to let people share their experiences of life and to have fun in the process
Read more about On Q


GB Pounds £
3+ each
Credit/Debit Cards
Shopping Cart by Roman Cart
Secure transactions by Sage Pay