Christmas Trees and Hourglasses



We know that the requirement for skills is changing in organisations, but what does this mean for traditional organisational shapes and career progression?

The image that we always used to use for organisations was the Christmas tree. With a single leader at the top, the Christmas tree shape is set out underneath with a triangle that gradually gets broader and then has a thin ‘pot’ at the bottom. It is the classic organisational model of hierarchy. If you map your own organisation today, particularly in the public sector, you may well see a similar shape appear. The NHS, Civil Service and Local Government are particularly good examples.

The Christmas tree shape is driven in part by an approach to organisation design that is fundamentally based around a concept of managerial hierarchy. However, it is also driven by pay with an inbuilt assumption that the higher up the Christmas tree you go, the higher the pay packet, the bigger the office, the smarter the suit, etc. until you reach the star at the top. What is happening now though is we are seeing a number of stars appear and increasingly difficult conversations about what we need to pay to bring those stars into our organisations.

With an increasing demand for high skills at the top end of the organisation, and a wider expectation and requirement for high skills at the bottom end, we are seeing the middle of our Christmas tree shrink to the point where it looks more like an hourglass. The wide base of the Christmas tree remains. The level below (the thin ‘pot’) is replaced by tech and the top end of the Christmas tree broadens out as we bring in greater numbers of high skilled specialists (hard and soft skills).

There are three fascinating challenges presented by our Christmas trees morphing into hourglasses.


  • Where are all these high skilled people at the top of an organisation coming from? It is unrealistic to expect those in the middle to suddenly acquire these skills.
  • As the top of the shape broadens out into the hourglass what happens to direction setting and leadership? The fattening out of the erstwhile font of strategic vision setting brings more legitimate voices and challenge into wider discussions about strategic direction.
  • What happens to those who find themselves at the bottom of the hourglass? What price would they have to pay and what sacrifices would they have to make to move to the top of the hourglass? As the gradual model of career progression over many years disappears, a more complex game emerges of sideways moves, retraining and bigger steps.


The hourglass presents huge opportunities but also a real danger of a two tier workforce emerging with less opportunities for mobility and advancement. That should be of concern to all of us who are concerned about social mobility, diversity, fairness and the future of work being human.










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