DECEPTIVE HIERARCHIES

Here's a hierarchy that makes sense. Not all of the them do. In fact, there will come a time in just a few weeks when this hierarchy no longer makes sense....and then it will change.

Here's a hierarchy that makes sense. Not all of the them do. In fact, there will come a time in just a few weeks when this hierarchy no longer makes sense....and then it will change.

Who’s cooler, Wolverine or Iron Man? That depends on your criteria of “cool”. Hierarchies are like that. They usually have more to do with the person asking the question and setting the criteria than any universal constant.

Take the concept of chronology. In storytelling chronology can be a false narrative hierarchy, even if it looks immediately logical and reasonable. The temporal order of events does not necessarily confer appropriate structure for telling a story well. Sometimes the best way to tell a story is to present events out of sequential order. The paradox should be clear: by placing narrative events out of order, storytellers discover the right order for presenting narratives.  Look at this another way: the "right" order of story events might not have anything to do with their temporal relationship to each other. 

Because we all want to live in a logical, rational world, false hierarchies exist everywhere. Consider this: in a nation where capitalism is king, the President of the United States makes substantially less money on an annual basis than CEOs of many corporations. Clearly there are other metrics of power beyond money in the culture, but presented as a ratio of responsibility versus simple reward, it would be easy to see how the hierarchical structure doesn't always follow a linear path.

After a while this idea become something of a parlor game, an intellectual exercise. Hierarchies of power, influence, aesthetic relevance, and even morality begin to blur as if we were twisting the barrel of our camera lens. 

There’s a tremendous risk here for creative people here, no matter if you run a restaurant, design golf courses, or write operas. Without some ability to determine when hierarchies ought to be followed, the pernicious trap of relativism threatens to turn everything gray. Relativism starts to make all things equal. The truth is, hierarchies actually matter. There is such a thing as “better” compared to “worse”. The problem is determining which is which and, of course, the moment you have more than one creative person in a room, you have more than one opinion. 

Yet we know there are hierarchical determinations that proves themselves accurate, or at least gain enough evidence as to make people suspect their veracity. Is Mozart “better” than Beethoven? That’s probably irrelevant. But is Mozart “better” than his many, many other contemporaries who also wrote music? Even if the vast majority can confidently declare “yes” the answer likely resides in whatever needs someone has to ask the question in the first place. 

History has certainly shown us how hierarchical structures can lead to massive misdirected choices. Germany's National Socialist Party of the 1930s is a perfect example, where a compelling hierarchy for millions proved to be catastrophic. But events on a much smaller, more trivial scale can similarly confuse smart thinking. Hollywood’s cinematic history is chockablock with “can’t fail” features that seem to have all the right assets on paper – – hierarchical determinations based on historical precedent. Then those features have their opening weekends...and sink. And lest anybody wince at the comparison of Hollywood entertainments against the horrors of Naziism, it's important to reinforce that the point here is about the appearance of rational hierarchies versus the guarantee that they will actually amount to something useful.

For creative people there's a compelling moment to consider when approaching complex projects. Ask yourself if the organizational structure of your idea and your organization simply exists because you understand it. Ask yourself if the hierarchy is fundamentally sound for the particular project. If it exists because that’s the way things have always been done, you might want to start over. That doesn’t mean you can’t go with a tried and true way of doing things, but it means that you must decide if the reason is solid or simply a function of inertia. 

There's always a tension. A purely hierarchical structure is almost always doomed to failure. Top heavy influence cannot know all answers, and an undervalued bottom doesn't always have a chance to percolate upwards. This is true not only for staffing structures, but also for purely intellectual ideas organized into a hierarchical pattern. The point is that when you are facing a creative moment, ask yourself if the easily explainable path forward is in fact the best path to take. If the art of storytelling relied solely on answering the question “then what happened?”, we would all read spreadsheets instead of novels.

@michaelstarobin

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