Breaking through the red tape of both democracy and hierarchy

a photo of Hong Kong skyscrapers stretching back and back and backWe were sitting around a table, taking about art and politics chewing bones when I heard the following complaint: ‘Oh democracy! It’s so slow, what with all the talking about every decision.’

Everything in Hong Kong moves fast, new buildings sprout overnight – don’t think that the enormous development in West Kowloon with its minimum of 11 new buildings is the only one occurring. Way before that emerges from the haze, the design incubator PMQ (named after its former usage as the Police Married Quarters) will open its doors with over 200 studio shops for design professionals and ‘the cube’ a newly created multipurpose performance space, and the Central Police Station will be reincarnated as a contemporary performing and visual arts hub aiming to revitalise the 16 heritage prison, magistracy and police buildings held within its site.

The new spaces will be welcomed – everyone moans about the lack of dedicated arts spaces within Hong Kong – but that’s not the end of the story. A delicate balancing act is needed to ensure these spaces are run as successfully as they might be.

Hong Kong, as a special administrative region of the People’s Republic of China isn’t a democracy even though it embraces capitalistic forces (it’s described quite aptly as ‘one administration, two systems’). Most of the existing arts buildings are under the direct control of the Leisure and Cultural Services Department, part of the government and very civil service in approach and operation.

Buildings – or hardware – are what Hong Kong does exceptionally well. It’s the software, the people that run the organisations, where the skills gaps are seen to be.

An article by CNN International last year stated:

If the PMQ and CPS are to be successful, they will need to find a way to escape from the red tape that strangles most Hong Kong cultural institutions. Virtually every public cultural institution, from the Museum of Art to the Jockey Club Creative Arts Centre, is notorious for having aloof, bureaucratic management that suffocates creativity like a wet blanket on fire.

Yet the comment at dinner reminded me of the equally dampening slowness that can occur making decisions in a truly democratic way. Of how many capital development projects in the UK have stalled for months, waiting for every viewpoint to be analysed and incorporated so that the process can be seen to be a fair one. (I sat on the Capital Panel for Arts Council England for a number of years, watching process after process stall for months.)

I was taken back to a session I was involved in running last year – on democracy and hierarchy. We exploded the simplistic concept of an axis running from one to another and looked instead at a matrix where organisations could operate in many more ways: high hierarchy and high democracy; high hierarchy and low democracy; low hierarchy and high democracy; and low hierarchy and low democracy, for example.

We placed people in groups, against their pre-existing preferences and made them complete a simple task. Their rules were as follows:

Low democracy, high hierarchy – There is a determined hierarchy of decision-making and responsibility. There is no democratic process involved. You are in a hierarchy, your place in the hierarchy is shown by the number on your sticker. Please stick to it for the duration of the task – number one is ultimately responsible for all decisions. Other members can only take action in accordance with delegated authority from the number above them.

High democracy, high hierarchy – There is a determined hierarchy of decision-making and responsibility and a strong commitment to democratic process. You must establish a hierarchy and stick to it for the duration of the task, and you must do so democratically. Whilst delivering the task, please use democratic processes when appropriate.

High democracy, low hierarchy  – You should have no determined hierarchy of decision-making or responsibility but instead should work with democratic processes to deliver your task. Please abide by majority rule.

Low democracy, low hierarchy – You should have no determined hierarchy of decision-making or responsibility and yet should also work with no democratic processes to deliver your task. You must work together as a group and must achieve consensus within what you do, but without voting or resorting to hierarchy.

After much hilarity, the consensus was clear – anything in an extreme can fail, any approach if it is the right one for a given situation and those working within it, can succeed. The skill is matching the right approach to the right situation and crucially, to the right people.

All this makes me think hard about where I fit and how I work. I admire most organisations that are both strongly democratic and hierarchical – where there is a clear and accountable mandate given by all to some to lead. Yet I acknowledge that I’m personally less useful in a hierarchy if I’m not near the top. I ask too many questions and annoy people. It’s why I work for myself.

I dislike organisations where either the hierarchy is strong and imposed undemocratically (I’ve worked in a few of these), or where the democracy is strong but there is little hierarchy in place, finding them tedious and slow in delivery.  I’m interested in the concept of deep democracy too – where all voices can be heard (great for diversity) but nervous of the time it might take in implementation.

I think I am in the fourth quadrant as a micro enterprise. There is no hierarchy as it is simply me, and equally, there is no democracy either. I build teams of people around me for each project I engage with and when I build them I don’t do it with a set hierarchy in place, yet there are clear leadership roles in all elements. Equally I know I am not democratic in my creation process – I select, I choose, I construct – and yet I don’t always place myself at the pinnacle of the work I deliver, my role is often a smaller one. Yet, or course, I am always bound by UK legislation (basically democratic).

Having walked down Hollywood Road and seen the PMQ site under development, having looked both across at and down on West Kowloon and seen the basic transport infrastructure going in, having walked past the Central Police Station and spoken to many about what it might contain and how it might run, I feel connected to the developments in Hong Kong, if only by interest.

What will the next two years, three years, five or ten years bring? The hardware we know – the models and maquettes show what the spaces might look like – but what about the heart within the spaces? The pulsing beat that actually makes things happen?

I believe buildings are simply vessels for people – it’s the people inside, the software, that makes the difference. And each person may work in a different way. How then does one construct the flexibility that is required within the operational delivery that truly empowers the individual to do what they do best, and to do it in the way that they do best? A hard thing to achieve indeed and the one that truly seems the challenge for both Hong Kong and myself as I take my own work further.

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