Don’t Let Your Flat Organization Fall Flat

By nazar

From startups to large companies, transparent and open hierarchies are picking up momentum. Word on the street is that bosses, micromanagers and bureaucracy are out of fashion, so let’s get rid of them to put everyone on an equal playing field. It’s the fairest way to treat your amazing talent pool, right?

A clear ‘yes’ would be an overly simplistic answer to this question, and here’s why:

When your organization fails to empower clear leaders, it’s tough for employees to take charge, mobilize a group, and run with a solid idea. So why not give everyone the right to move full speed ahead with their big visions, with limited red tape?

Because resources are finite, and you need people in middle management to connect ground-level initiatives with your company’s overarching vision. Execs simply don’t have time to assume this intermediary role because they’re busy pleasing board members, appealing to investors, and running the public-facing, financial show.

Vertical Ambition Dies

Horizontal ambition is a great way to support a lean organization while encouraging marketers, engineers, and designers to become master craftspeople. At 37signals, a Chicago-based software company, employees jump in to lead as-needed. Everybody is committed to doing the actual work, and the need for a manager is simply obsolete.

“We’ve experimented with promoting a few people to manager-level roles,” wrote 37signals co-founder Jason Fried for Inc. “In some cases, this has worked out; in others, it hasn’t. But one thing we’ve found is that groups that manage themselves are often better off than groups that are managed by a single person. So when groups do require structure, we get them to manage themselves.”

Thing is, you can’t expect every organization to naturally function this way. The 37signals example works because the culture is heavily dedicated to it. But here’s the thing: some organizations are intrinsically hierarchical.

You need a CEO, and you need to hire team members who want to become a CEO. The path they take to get there? Management. A flat organization will ultimately squash employees with vertical ambition. They’ll inevitably leave, and not for the pay or company culture either. They’ll go pursue the title.

Anyone Can Become a Stakeholder

At face value, this perspective seems awesome. Why shouldn’t anyone become a stakeholder in your business? Well, because they’re not qualified. They may need a few more years or grooming, or they may be a mismatch for your company’s overarching strategic vision. Leadership is something learned and earned over experiences and – to some degree – time.

“The issue is further exacerbated when power struggles arise in the group, say over which idea is best or how to bring something to life,” wrote Matt Van Hoven for Get the Five. “Another problem area is when individuals make strides to define their roles by asserting that they own a set of tasks.

One person might try to own something that falls into another person’s wheel house. Depending on the pair’s relationship, this can be very detrimental to the relationship and the office environment overall, and leads to poor communication and disengagement.”

Effective managers excel in bringing their team’s strengths and areas of ownership together into a consolidated group vision.

There is Confusion Where Power Lies

What happens when five people bring five great decisions to the table? Ultimately, someone needs to make a clear judgment call. Who should that person be? Some organizations encourage teams to make that decision themselves.

Thing is, the power of ‘influence’ is something that exists on a spectrum, and inevitably, clear patterns will emerge in who makes the most compelling arguments. Note that compelling arguments don’t always align with overarching business ideas. And the four other great ideas? Those fall through the cracks.

“Fewer levels of management means less gerontocracy and more flexibility in decision making,” wrote Dana Griffin for Chron. “However, it also means that more underlings are reporting to a single manager, which leads to confusion about the chain of command.”

Resentment Grows Quickly

Here’s what happens when your flat organization doesn’t work out: people get annoyed, and they’ll leave your company. It’s not because your company lacks good intentions. It’s because you’ve implemented a system that doesn’t quite mesh with your team’s values and career goals.

At a niche company, flat organizations are more likely to work because you’re dealing with a small, self-selected subset of the population. At a large company, you’re dealing with a cross section of the general population, and these individuals want to advance vertically while thriving in settings with a clear chain of command.

In other words, know your employees before unilaterally deciding that a flat organization structure is right for your company. Do your due diligence by researching and evaluating team dynamics at the ground level. Ask questions between the lines. Listen and observe. Don’t let ‘sexy’ ideas blind you from the clear goals your company needs to accomplish.

Is a flat structure the right way to achieve those goals? Maybe, maybe not. Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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