I recently interviewed Rod Morris on my podcast, and our discussion centered around “self-managed distributed network corporate structure, a.k.a. flat organizational corporate structure. I was immediately intrigued by this idea and decided to learn more about it. You can listen to our interview on February 14, 2022.
The traditional hierarchy organizational structure has been around since the 1950s, and so have many of the strategies developed to make it work well. As time goes on, though, some of these strategies are becoming less effective, while others are simply out of date.
What is a flat organization? A company that doesn’t operate on strict hierarchies like most traditional businesses. In these companies, decisions are made at an operational level rather than from senior executives managers in the C-Suite or regional offices with little contact with worksites employees. Everyone should be involved in developing solutions to customer problems, which means that everyone has an equal say about what customers want.
To achieve the right balance between leadership and organization, here are four things you probably didn’t know about flat organizations.
Not all companies can be flat.
Not every business model is suited to a flat structure. Businesses operating in highly regulated industries, for example, may not be able to eliminate hierarchy and authority structures that ensure compliance with rules and laws. In these situations, it’s OK to be flat-ish. But when your company isn’t in a tightly structured industry, using a flatter organization can help you become more agile and responsive while reducing hierarchy-related costs. And if moving to a flatter org seems impossible today, try making room for some small experiments. Start by delegating decisions from your boss; give employees the authority to make confident choices—without requiring permission from higher-ups first—and monitor results closely so you know whether or not those decisions are right for your business. Just because everyone in an organization has titles doesn’t mean they have power over others; they control their roles and responsibilities.
How to start implementing a flat organization
There are numerous advantages to implementing a flat organization, with notable examples from start-ups like Google. Below are tips on how to start your company down that path. In addition, there is also the advice given to companies already moving in that direction; ideas for keeping morale high and employees motivated within non-hierarchical structures.
Many companies have tried experimenting with flatter organizational structures, but few have mastered it. Yet some organizations are very successful in doing so; they have implemented policies and protocols which have allowed them to maintain a happy employee base while still producing outstanding results – even without bosses monitoring every move or workers jockeying for promotion. Let’s take a look at some of these positive trends. The last few years have seen an increase in companies pushing towards flatter organizational structures; teams where job descriptions focus more on duties than hierarchy. That’s not to say that everyone’s title is Director of Nothing or Head of Indeterminate Anything. Managers might be reduced, and everyone has an equal say regardless of experience level or tenure at the company.
The ten elements of a flat organization
#1. No strict hierarchical layers;
#2. Everyone is responsible for what everyone does;
#3. Each employee’s opinion matters, regardless of rank or seniority;
#4. Decisions are made as close to customers as possible;
#5. One-size-fits-all isn’t a good approach.
#6. Teams across geographies come together regularly, if not daily;
#7. Employees can take their leave whenever they want—and are encouraged to do so
#8. Employees are encouraged to use their initiative and don’t feel micromanaged; if something needs doing, they take care of it—and are rewarded for it in some cases (e.g., bonuses)—
#9. Employees wear many hats: They might be cross-trained to step into roles occupied by colleagues when someone is out sick or on vacation; and
#10. Collaboration and teamwork are emphasized within functional areas such as marketing or accounting and across available lines such as between engineering and sales
Rules for Successful Collaboration
We all think that we embrace the concept of collaboration, but ego and office politics kill successful collaboration. In a flat organization, these hierarchies collaboration killers rarely exist, and if they do, they are addressed immediately.
Collaboration is one of the underlying principles in improv leadership. To achieve a successful partnership, there must be a foundation of respect for the other party; each party is trustworthy, and each party supports the team. If any of these three foundations are missing, collaboration ceases to exist.
Here is the superpower to improv leadership with this foundation in place – become an active listener where you are focused on the conversation all the while eliminating distractions, such as internal dialog, biases, and the need to be correct, while removing external distractions, like your smartphone for a starter.
Finally, adopting the Yes! And philosophy where – Yes, I hear what you are saying, And did you consider… The goal is to move the conversation forward positively and collaboratively.
Flat organizational structures are not for every organization. However, can your organization adopt a flat-ish approach and become more nimble by distributing the power and authority to others to make decisions without your approval. In the book, A CEO Only Does Three Things by Trey Taylor, a CEO works on the company culture, hiring the right people, paying attention to the numbers, and putting other decision-making away from the CEO and to those managers responsible for the departmental expectations.