Most of us spend our childhood and the majority of our adulthood in the role of a subordinate. From our first day of school, to our first internship and throughout much of our career, we are given a series of tasks from a superior. We aren’t challenged to be creative or come up with innovative solutions, but rather to follow instructions and produce results. We learn to memorize what’s on the test, to do our tasks without questioning why we’re doing them, and once we become a manager, we learn to dictate to others as we’ve been taught to do. But what if companies learned to think differently, embracing the autonomy and creative potential of each individual?
Well, thanks to the proliferation of new project management technologies and methodologies combined with a revived interest in productivity and organisational structure, the last decade has seen many companies experimenting with flat organisation as a way to encourage employee engagement and boost productivity. Flat organisations or flat hierarchies do away with traditional hierarchies and management levels in favour of self-organised teams and democratic decision making. While a company without managers may sound bizarre, many companies have seen great outcomes when adopting and staying with a flat or semi-flat organisation.
Take Valve, for example, who received much press after having embraced a non-hierarchical structure. A 2013 article in Inc.com quotes Valve’s former economist in residence, the famed leather-jacket-wearing former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis, as marveling at Valve’s democratic approach to organisation: “It contains no explicit hierarchy. It’s based on what several members of the company have described to me as the principles of anarcho-syndicalism. Effectively, free association of employees with one another.” Anarcho-syndicalism may sound like complicated economist talk, but the basic principle is that groups self-organise and work together to achieve a common objective. The theory has yet to be tested as in a political system, but it’s certainly been proven that it translates well to organisations.
Particularly for web-based companies, a flat organisation has numerous benefits. Medium.com and Wordpress have famously employed flat or semi-flat structures like lattice, open allocation, or holacracies, each dedicated to self-management, transparent communication, and clear objectives. As Chris Rufer, founder of Morning Star and another flat organisation, explains it, “Everyone is a manager of their own mission.” Sounds utopian, to be sure, but what are the practical benefits? Well, we came up with a few that we’ve noticed throughout the years here at WAAT:
If you’ve hired people for your company, you should already be convinced that they’re fully capable of doing their jobs. Rather than teaching managers to micromanage their employees, which leads to alienation and demotivation, flat organisations encourage them to become leaders. Being flat means that leadership roles change and oscillate depending on the task, so that everyone has a chance to take the lead when they are the most-skilled person to do so. In flat organisations, everyone is a leader.
Flat organisations are built around the idea that anyone can pursue a creative vision, and by doing so, broaden the possibilities of innovation in the company. Flat or semi-flat organisations (and even some more traditionally structured companies like Google) boast between 10% and 100% “free time” for workers to explore what interests them, sparking new ideas and promoting out-of-the-box thinking that propels the company forward.
Instead of directing people, flat organisations encourage employees to trust one another, solve problems among themselves, and empower them to learn on their own. Workers are autonomous and migrate between teams depending on their skill set and what they can offer. At Valve, for example, employees can move around to different projects and utilise or learn different skills. Work tasks are allocated within self-organised groups.
At any company, flat or not, trust between coworkers is key. If employees are encouraged to trust each other fully, transformative cooperation can flourish. Workers can assign tasks to one another and be assured that they will be finished on time, and can be trusted to make good decisions. Task management tools and daily standups, as well as democratic decision-making ensures that no one is left in the dark and that all decisions are worked through transparently among equals. Trusting your employees is key, which, again, means hiring the right people in the first place who are devoted to the mission of the company, and see themselves as an integral part of its functioning.
Traditional hierarchies often employ complicated, bureaucratic systems that require many stakeholders to be involved in a single decision. Again, because you trust your employees, believe that they are capable of taking decisions that are the best for the organisation. By eliminating middle-management and embracing a decentralised decision-making process, companies can save valuable time and resources while giving their employees a sense of agency.
When everyone is working toward the same goal, the result is an engaged workforce who will be keen to lead, engage and adapt. Instead of just working blindly on assignments from your boss, think of the vision as the real boss. Having a flat organisation is contingent on having a unified goal and vision. Instilling a sense of purpose in everyone who is part of the company is key to allowing them, and the company, to flourish.
Flat hierarchies, of course, aren’t for every organisation. They work best in situations where innovation is key, and where everyone can benefit from the others’ skill sets and contribute to the larger goal. Sure, a marketing intern probably can’t build the code for a website, but having her in the meetings and encouraging continuous feedback might help the developer do his job better, and she hers as well. The real key to a highly-functioning flat organisation is having the right people on board and empowering them through transparency, trust, and encouragement to be the best worker they can be.