The pyramid-style organisational structure, also known as the hierarchical structure is possibly the most common form used to structure organisations today.

Unfortunately, in the world of change leadership, many who have spent the majority of their careers in these structures fall short when it comes to influencing people beyond the boundaries of their structured authority.

In this article, I want to answer questions about this structure – what is it, where did it come from, who does it suit the best, and what are the most notable alternatives to consider?


This structure has its origins in ancient civilisations and can be traced back thousands of years. The concept of hierarchy and the use of pyramidal structures can be found in various aspects of human society and organisation.

1. Ancient Egypt:

One of the earliest and most iconic examples of pyramid structures can be found in ancient Egypt. The Egyptian pyramids, such as the Great Pyramid of Giza, were built as tombs for pharaohs and served as symbols of their power and authority. The hierarchical structure of ancient Egyptian society, with the pharaoh at the top and various levels of officials and workers beneath may have influenced the development of the pyramid organisational structure.

2. Military History:

Military organisations throughout history have often adopted hierarchical structures to facilitate command and control. Ancient armies, such as the Roman legions, organised their forces into hierarchical ranks with generals at the top followed by officers, non-commissioned officers, and enlisted soldiers. This hierarchical arrangement allowed for efficient communication, coordination, and the delegation of authority.

3. Industrial Revolution:

The pyramid structure gained prominence during the Industrial Revolution when large-scale factories and organisations emerged. As industrialisation progressed, there was a need for clear lines of authority and a hierarchical structure to manage the growing number of employees and coordinate their activities. This structure facilitated top-down decision-making, standardised procedures, and efficient supervision.

4. Scientific Management Theory:

The work of Frederick Winslow Taylor, a prominent figure in the field of scientific management, also influenced the development of the pyramid structure. Taylor’s principles emphasised the division of labor, specialisation, and a clear chain of command. His theories aimed to maximise efficiency and productivity in organisations by structuring them in a hierarchical manner.

5. Bureaucratic Theory:

The bureaucratic theory of organisation, developed by sociologist Max Weber, also contributed to the pyramid structure. Weber emphasised the importance of a well-defined hierarchical structure with clear roles, responsibilities, and a system of rules and procedures. Bureaucratic organisations typically feature a pyramid-like hierarchy with layers of authority.

Over time, these historical influences, combined with the practical need for effective coordination and management, have shaped the pyramid-style organisational structure that is widely used today. However, it’s worth noting that modern organisations are increasingly adopting flatter structures, emphasising collaboration, agility, and decentralised decision-making, as opposed to strict hierarchical arrangements.


The purpose of a hierarchical structure is to establish clear lines of authority, facilitate efficient communication and decision-making, and provide a framework for coordination and organisation within an entity.

Where It Works Best

Hierarchical structures are often well-suited for industries and organisations where clear command and control, standardised procedures, and efficient coordination are crucial. Here are some types of industries that tend to benefit from a hierarchical structure:

1. Military and Defence:

The military requires strict hierarchical structures to ensure clear chains of command, efficient communication, and coordinated efforts during complex operations.

2. Manufacturing:

Industries involving mass production like automotive and electronics manufacturing, benefit from hierarchical structures to manage large workforces and ensure consistent quality and efficiency.

3. Healthcare:

Hospitals and healthcare organisations often adopt hierarchical structures to manage patient care, with clear roles for medical professionals, administrative staff, and support personnel.

4. Large Corporations:

Big corporations with diverse departments and business units find hierarchical structures helpful in managing different functions, ensuring accountability, and making strategic decisions.

5. Government and Public Administration:

Government agencies and public institutions require structured hierarchies to manage public services, enforce regulations, and allocate resources effectively.

6. Education:

Schools and universities often use hierarchical structures to manage faculty, staff, and students, ensuring that educational programs run smoothly and administrative tasks are handled efficiently.

7. Law Enforcement:

Police departments and law enforcement agencies utilise hierarchical structures to manage officers, investigators, and administrative staff, maintaining order and enforcing laws.

8. Traditional organisations:

Traditional industries that value stability, predictability, and clear lines of authority, such as finance, insurance, and utilities, often adopt hierarchical structures.

It’s important to note that while hierarchical structures offer advantages in terms of control and coordination, modern trends are seeing many industries move towards flatter structures that emphasise flexibility, innovation, and employee empowerment.

Many organisations today are adopting hybrid structures that combine elements of hierarchy with more decentralised decision-making to balance the benefits of both approaches.

Where This Is Not The Best Option

Businesses that emphasise innovation, adaptability, creativity, and rapid decision-making might be better off avoiding or modifying a traditional hierarchical structure. Here are some types of businesses that could benefit from adopting different organisational structures:

1. Startups and Tech Companies:

Startups and technology-driven businesses often require quick decision-making and the ability to pivot rapidly based on market changes. Flat or matrix structures that encourage collaboration and cross-functional communication are often favoured in these industries.

2. Creative and Design Firms:

Businesses focused on creativity, such as advertising agencies, design studios, and content production companies, thrive on collaborative environments that allow for free exchange of ideas. Flatter structures promote creativity and encourage input from diverse team members.

3. Consulting and Professional Services:

In industries where expertise is the main product, such as consulting and legal services, a network-based structure that allows professionals to collaborate and share knowledge across teams can be more effective than a strict hierarchy.

4. Innovation and Research organisations:

Companies heavily engaged in research and development need structures that promote cross-functional collaboration and the integration of various expertise areas. Hierarchical barriers can impede the flow of ideas and hinder innovation.

5. Tech Startups:

Fast-moving technology startups often adopt flat structures that empower employees to take ownership of their work, make decisions, and contribute to the company’s growth.

6. Creative Startups:

Companies in fields like gaming, app development, and entertainment often thrive with flexible structures that allow for rapid innovation and experimentation.

7. E-commerce and Online Businesses:

Businesses in the online space benefit from structures that allow for quick adaptation to changing trends and customer preferences. Hierarchical structures might slow down decision-making in these fast-paced industries.

8. Customer-Centric Businesses:

Organisations that prioritise direct customer interaction, like retail and hospitality, can benefit from structures that empower front-line employees to make decisions and provide personalised service.

9. Project-Based organisations:

Businesses that frequently work on diverse projects can benefit from adopting a project-based or matrix structure that allows experts from different areas to collaborate temporarily based on project requirements.

10. Social Enterprises and Nonprofits:

Organisations driven by a strong mission or social cause might benefit from more participatory and team-oriented structures that encourage employees to align with the organisation’s values and goals.

In general, industries that require flexibility, rapid innovation, and close customer engagement tend to favour structures that promote collaboration, empowerment, and quick decision-making over traditional hierarchical arrangements.

Notable Alternative Organisation Structures

There are several notable alternatives to the traditional hierarchical organisational structure. These alternatives aim to promote collaboration, agility, and flexibility within the organisation. Some of the most notable alternatives include:

1. Flat organisational Structure:

In a flat structure, there are fewer layers of management, and the organisation’s hierarchy is less pronounced. Employees have more autonomy and are encouraged to make decisions independently.

This structure promotes quick communication and a sense of ownership among team members.

2. Matrix organisational Structure:

The matrix structure combines elements of both functional and project-based structures. Employees report to both functional managers and project managers, allowing for specialisation and cross-functional collaboration.

This structure is suitable for organisations with multiple projects and diverse skill sets.

3. Holacracy:

Holacracy is an approach where authority and decision-making are distributed throughout self-organising teams. Instead of traditional job roles, the organisation is divided into circles focused on specific functions.

Holacracy emphasises transparency, accountability, and adaptability.

4. Network organisational Structure:

Network structures are decentralised and emphasise collaboration between various entities, often partners, suppliers, and customers. This structure is common in industries where cooperation and flexibility are key, such as technology and supply chain management.

5. Team-Based organisational Structure:

In a team-based structure, the organisation is divided into smaller teams, each responsible for specific projects or tasks. Teams are empowered to make decisions and work collaboratively, promoting innovation and responsiveness.

6. Boundary-less organisational Structure:

A Boundary-less structure seeks to eliminate traditional barriers within an organisation, such as hierarchy and departments. It encourages open communication, information sharing, and collaboration across all levels and functions.

7. Virtual organisational Structure:

Virtual organisations operate without a central physical location. Team members work remotely or from various locations, often relying on digital communication and collaboration tools. This structure is suitable for businesses that require a geographically dispersed workforce.

8. Adhocracy:

Adhocracy is characterised by its flexibility and emphasis on innovation. It allows employees to operate with a high degree of autonomy, encouraging experimentation and creative problem-solving.

9. Circular organisational Structure:

The circular structure replaces traditional top-down hierarchy with a circular arrangement, where decision-making power is distributed among interconnected circles or teams.

This promotes collaboration, adaptability, and open communication.

10. Lean organisational Structure:

Inspired by lean manufacturing principles, this structure focuses on reducing waste, streamlining processes, and empowering employees to identify and solve problems.

It promotes continuous improvement and efficiency.

The choice of organisational structure depends on various factors, including the industry, company size, culture, and goals. Many modern organisations are adopting hybrid structures that combine elements of traditional hierarchy with more collaborative and flexible approaches to achieve the best of both worlds.

Choosing the Right Structure

Choosing the right organisational structure for your business is a critical decision that can impact its effectiveness, culture, and overall success.

Here are five tips to guide you in making the right choice:

1. Understand Your Business Needs and Goals:

Before deciding on a structure, clearly define your business’s goals, priorities, and values. Consider factors like the size of your organisation, industry dynamics, growth plans, and the level of innovation required.

A structure that aligns with your strategic objectives will better support your business as it evolves.

 2. Assess Your Company Culture:

Your existing company culture plays a significant role in the effectiveness of different organisational structures. Consider whether your culture is more collaborative, hierarchical, innovative, or traditional.

Choose a structure that complements and strengthens your culture, rather than forcing a mismatch.

3. Analyse Roles and Functions:

Evaluate the roles and functions within your organisation. Identify how work is currently distributed and which areas require close collaboration.

This will help you determine whether a hierarchical, flat, team-based, or matrix structure is more suitable to achieve efficient coordination and clear responsibilities.

4. Consider Communication and Decision-Making:

Reflect on how information flows and decisions are made in your business. If quick decision-making and open communication are essential, flatter structures or those that promote autonomy might be more appropriate.

Conversely, if regulatory compliance and clear lines of authority are vital, a more traditional structure could be suitable.

5. Anticipate Future Needs and Flexibility:

Choose a structure that allows for flexibility and growth. Consider how adaptable the chosen structure is as your business expands or shifts focus.

Hybrid structures or those that encourage cross-functional collaboration might be beneficial as they offer both stability and adaptability.


Remember that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. You might also consider seeking advice from business consultants, engaging your employees in the decision-making process, and studying how similar successful businesses in your industry are structured.

Be open to revisiting and adjusting your structure as your business evolves to ensure that it continues to support your goals effectively.

More Information

For more information about the work of George Lee Sye and his team, visit where you’ll discover one of the most significant professional development programs in the world today covering topics of leadership, influence, business execution, and lean six sigma.

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