Re: Can We Live Without Hierarchy?
From: Tom Smyth (
Date: Thu, 30 Jul 2015 06:00:38 -0700 (PDT)
You can delegate and have leadership and still not have hierarchy.
Hierarchy to me implies rigidity: the boss is the boss and has the final
say and that's all there is to it. Instead of that you can have a
democratically elected and recallable leader that plays an executive role.
This may technically be "hierarchy", but not of the rigid sort that article
5 refers to.

On Thu, Jul 30, 2015 at 6:11 AM, R Philip Dowds <rpdowds [at]> 

> Folks —
> I’ve been (re)reading the Coho US “6 Defining Characteristics of
> Cohousing”, and keep getting hung up on Number 5:
> 5. Non-hierarchical structure and decision-making. Leadership roles
> naturally exist in cohousing communities, however no one person (or
> persons) has authority over others. Most groups start with one or two
> “burning souls.” As people join the group, each person takes on one or more
> roles consistent with his or her skills, abilities or interests. Most
> cohousing groups make all of their decisions by consensus, and, although
> many groups have a policy for voting if the group cannot reach consensus
> after a number of attempts, it is rarely or never necessary to resort to
> voting.
> "Non-hierarchical structure" is something of an oxymoron:  Structure
> implies hierarchy, where distinct components have differentiated purposes
> and relationships.  Without hierarchy, you don’t have structure, you have
> just a blob.
> Well, let’s not get hung up on parsing the language.  Here’s the real
> problem:  What about delegation?  In an ideal world, perhaps, all decisions
> are made by all the members in the room at the same, in “plenary” or “full
> circle” or whatever.  But in the real world, hardly any of us work that
> way.  Instead, we (meaning, in cohousing, plenary) subdivide aim and
> decisions into logical groupings, and delegate the authority to make these
> kinds of decisions to “committees” or “circles” or whatever.  So, we have a
> hierarchy:  Plenary, plus the committees to which plenary has delegated a
> defined amount of discretionary authority.  Some cohos even have
> sub-committees that also have powers as well as duties.
> All of which sounds like hierarchy to me.  Lacking any delegation, all you
> have is centralized command and control.  I am not persuaded that central
> command and control is an OK organizational model, even when the center is
> plenary (or, especially when the center is plenary).  So I am wondering if
> Characteristic 5 needs a clarification or re-write …
> Thanks,
> Philip Dowds
> Cornerstone Cohousing
> Cambridge, MA
> mobile: 617.460.4549
> email:   rpdowds [at]
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Tom Smyth

Worker-Owner, Sassafras Tech Collective
Specializing in innovative, usable tech for social change *·* @sassafrastech

Resident, Touchstone Cohousing

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