The Horizontal Imperative

Immanuel Kant’s moral philosophy was summed up in his “categorical imperative:”

Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.

Much has been written about this—I won’t add to it. Except to say its relevance is growing due to the “horizontal imperative.”

Think what these themes have in common:

Flat organizations
Declining transaction costs
Joint ventures
Strategic alliances
Open source
Social networking
Matrix organizations
Project management

They all deal with horizontal, not vertical, relationships. And they’re all increasing.

Business is increasingly conducted via horizontal relationships—peers, partners, professionals/clients. Yet we still think in terms of vertical relationships—command, control, performance measurement, reviews, rewards.

Our vocabulary is little changed, but the denotation of words is shifting. Think what these words meant 15 years ago—vs. now:


Kant’s second formulation of the categorical imperative was:

Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end.

In a corporate world of vertical relationships, people can preach Kant, but those in power don’t have to listen. They are free to—and often did/do—treat others as means.

In a horizontal world, even dotted-line authority is rare, much less straight line. In horizontal relationships, people can and do insist on being treated as ends.

In a horizontal world, power comes from influence, not authority. Paradoxically, the greatest influence comes from a genuine concern for others. Client focus without the microscopic quid pro quo. Reciprocity with more than a 15-minute leash. A predilection for “we” not “me.”

In a horizontal world, Kant’s abstract principle becomes an empirical descriptor of successful behavior.

The newest New Economy does not imply an egalitarian utopia. But it does mean increased connectivity. Butterfly wings have impact. We are in the same (bigger) sandbox, forced to learn to play together nicely. Those who learn to do so benefit.

Collaboration is the new competitive advantage. Trust rules.

It’s the horizontal imperative.