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Key Idea: Try A Heterarchy

At  Wahoo's Fish Taco, based in Santa Ana, California,  the owners take an unconventional path to getting things done.   More...     More on Wahoo's...

Key Question:


There are many ways. Small businesses might have different project managers for various business activities.

We saw how effectively this is done at Ziba Design, where the right talent was assembled for each project. In the area of innovation, many small businesses effectively select a “champion” of a new product or service concept or a new marketing idea.

The champion is responsible for evaluating the new idea, formalizing it, testing it, and then reporting back to the team with a recommendation to go forward or not. Giving someone responsibility at this level can be inspiring to the individual because the business owner is confirming his or her value to the organization.

Wahoo's Fish Taco uses a heterarchy.  You can read more about this company by going back to our alphabetical listing to find the transcript and study guide for this episode. However, the leadership at Wahoo's literally turned the old hierarchical and very traditional form of leadership upside down when they made the baby brother the CEO. In our ten years of studying small and growing businesses we have never seen this. The middle brother, Ed said, "Wing can't tie his shoes and his has trouble combing his hair." Wing is the oldest brother and should be the CEO but instead he is in charge of marketing. Ed also said, "Wing is the best in the world at what he does."

This is so refreshing. The CEO is not the best at marketing and does not make marketing decisions. The CEO is not the best at real estate and does not make real estate decisions. The CEO is not the best at restaurant systems and does not make systems decisions.

Now you are wondering, what does the CEO do? He is the gathering point. He is the center of the wheel. Mingo is the budget guy and has to make all the parts fits together as a whole, however, he runs a heterarchy which highly values the talents and abilities of others. Also, the brothers were smart enough to know what they didn't know so they not only hired a person with the needed knowledge; they made him a full partner in the business.

Think about it

Does your business or could your business operate as a heterarchy? If not, why? Do you see the benefit of this strategy? If you choose to adopt this type of culture, would need to change your hiring practices?

Clip from: Leadership with Keith Grint

Truly exchanging ideas is a starting point for leadership.

The World: Meet Prof. Dr. Keith Grint.  In this episode, he explains why we are so frustrated with the leadership who dominate the headlines. He makes it clear that it is time to turn away from the selfish people and look to each other to find the heart of real leadership. 

Dr. Grint says that having a vision is certainly a starting point but that the "vision thing" has been overrated. Anybody can have a dream or a picture of how they want their world or their company to look but very few are good at putting the plans in place then taking action on those plans to turn the vision into reality.

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Wahoo's Fish Tacos

Mingo Lee, CEO

2855 Pullman Street
Santa Ana, CA 92705

Visit our web site:

Office: 949-222-0670

Business Classification:

Year Founded: 1991

Try A Heterarchy

DR. GRINT: Conventionally we distinguish between hierarchies and anarchies. Hierarchy would be formal positions of power in a particular organization whereas anarchy would be the absence of formal positions of power. Nobody in control.

I think if you look at the historical record, there are no organizations that persist across time successfully that are run as anarchies. They are all to some extent hierarchical. But the question is what kind of hierarchy do you have? Now, one way of understanding this would be to think about heterarchies.

A heterarchy is a movable hierarchy where people would replace leaders on a temporary basis. This would be the kind of equivalent of a research team, or a project team. Where different people would take positions of power, for more appropriate roles given their expertise. And you can see this in, in all kinds of small informal groups where different people play different roles of leadership. They are better understood as heterarchies than as hierarchies.

(Speaking to Eric Rose on the construction site of one of his projects.)

HATTIE: And so how big is the house?

(Voiceover) Many strong companies like E.M. Rose builders operate as heterarchies. The right talent is assembled project by project. Merriam-Webster says a heterarchy is a form of organization resembling a network or fishnet and authority is determined by knowledge and function. Employees at Altoon and Porter have their own share in computer, but move to new desks when assigned a new project. Renegade Animation taps particular talent for particular jobs. Goshow Architects is all about everyone's best ideas being brought forward, and the same is true at Boardroom Inc.

DR. GRINT: A different way of putting that would be that they are engaged in deep leadership. That is to say leadership occurs throughout the organization and is not constrained to the formal positions in the hierarchy. What I'm suggesting is, there are two things. One is the formal leaders need to be constrained by their subordinates who are willing -- this is another way of putting this would be to talk about them being constructive dissenters. People who have the best interest of the organization at heart, they're constructive. But they're happy to dissent from the main ideals of the organization or the decision making of the organization. Which is the reverse of destructive consenters.

People who are willing to say yes of course that's right knowing that it's actually not the right way to go about things. Most organizations are full of destructive consenters, yes people. As opposed to constructive dissenters who are the thorns in people's sides that are actually very unpopular but necessary to keep an organization from going in the wrong direction. You need to surround yourself with a group of people who are willing to tell you when you're going wrong.

ED: Actually you know Wing can't tie shoes. He can't barely get his hair combed out or anything. He's disorganized, but he's a great marketing man. The one thing that he does, he does better than anyone alive.

HATTIE: (Voiceover) Ed is Wing Lam's younger brother and Wing is the force behind Wahoo's Fish Taco, their 22-location surfer food joints. All traditional leadership roles were thrown out the window by these three brothers because they were more interested in success than their own egos. The baby brother, Mingo, is the CEO. And they recruited a fourth partner, Steve Karfaridis, a Greek with 5-star restaurant systems experience to be the COO.

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