Triarchy refers to the three fundamental ways of getting things done in organizations: hierarchy, heterarchy and responsible autonomy.
All organizations use a mixture of these three ways, but the proportions can differ widely. At present, hierarchy is usually considered essential for all organizations. Heterarchy and responsible autonomy are often misunderstood or neglected. Here is an outline;
The pecking order is a common feature of animal communities, but there are instances where some animal groups - meerkats for example - have developed interchanging roles for the good of the colony. Even here, however, there are alpha males and females.
The Hegemony of Hierarchy
Triarchy theory suggests that our "addiction to hierarchy" - caused by the hegemony of hierarchical thinking in, for example, the military and the Catholic Church - drains the energy from collaborative projects and sometimes fails to recognise the input of able individuals whose contributions can be overlooked in a formal reporting structure.
Managers will frequently take credit for work accomplished by members of their teams or stifle innovative work for reasons of company politics. But it is not only the possibility for this kind of behaviour that limits the effectiveness of hierarchy. A larger problem is the focus it places on a few designated individuals who are expected to make the right decisions on every occasion.
The problem with hierarchy is that it has too often bred authoritarianism, creating fear in some cases and dependence in others. So that 50 years ago, W. Edwards Deming was urging organizations to drive out fear (even as others counselled managers to use fear to extract the best from their staff - a process famously likened to the potent "last fart of the ferret"). Even when a hierarchy is relatively benign it can inhibit independent thinking by maintaining habitual relationships, allowing some to settle in comfort zones with few responsibilities:
In a truly hierarchical organization, only the individual at the top learns. Everyone else obeys orders. Creativity and innovation are limited to that of the individual at the top. An organization without learning will only survive in very stable conditions. In practice, of course, the lower ranks actually learn and adapt without being told to do so. But hierarchies tend to learn slowly, especially because a lot of effort goes into preserving the superior status of those at the top, inevitably an "anti-learning activity."
Triarchy theory speculates that a spontaneous emergence of hierarchy among groups of people, even in pre-school children, may have something to do with genetic predisposition. This would help to explain why hierarchies are almost taken for granted in some societies. The two alternatives to hierarchy are "heterarchy" and "responsible autonomy".
Heterarchy is divided, supported or dispersed rule where control shifts around depending on the project and the personality, skills, experience and enthusiasm of those who can make things happen. Much of the project work that is becoming common in large technology companies fits this kind of arrangement.
Triarchy theory then points to the kind of responsible autonomy enjoyed by fund managers who tend to be left to themselves if their fund is performing well. Success attracts a larger fund and more clients. Autonomy is provided by the internal policies of the investment institution. Accountability is provided by the performance of the fund.
There is good evidence to suggest that, in the 21st century, organizations are significantly changing the way they get things done. The result, triarchy theory suggests, will be a gradual move away from hierarchy in organizations.
Triarchy theory's main proponent is Gerard Fairtlough (through his book The Three Ways of Getting Things Done), and it has strong links to sociocracy, Peer-to-Peer theory, complexity theory and Spiral Dynamics.