We often hear managers say “we have a flat structure here”.
A flat structure is a great idea in principle, who wouldn’t want an organisation where everyone feels empowered to make decisions, and managers aren’t required to monitor output or referee conflicts between teams.
They absolutely can work, but you have to really think it through and work at it on an ongoing basis. Setting up a flat structure takes a lot of careful thought. Any human system left unattended will have cliques form. Also, Humans naturally gravitate towards hierarchy and they will arise spontaneously even in a flat organisation, whether you want them to or not. They can form based on power, knowledge or resources. To set up a flat structure there are a number of things you need to keep in mind:
𝟭 𝗬𝗼𝘂 𝗻𝗲𝗲𝗱 𝘁𝗼 𝗱𝗲𝘃𝗲𝗹𝗼𝗽 𝗮𝗴𝗿𝗲𝗲𝗺𝗲𝗻𝘁𝘀 𝗯𝗲𝘁𝘄𝗲𝗲𝗻 𝗶𝗻𝗱𝗶𝘃𝗶𝗱𝘂𝗮𝗹𝘀 𝗮𝗻𝗱 𝘁𝗲𝗮𝗺s 𝘁𝗼 𝘀𝗲𝘁 𝘁𝗵𝗲 𝘀𝘁𝗮𝗻𝗱𝗮𝗿𝗱 𝗮𝗻𝗱 𝗮𝗴𝗿𝗲𝗲 𝗼𝘂𝗿 “𝘄𝗮𝘆 𝗼𝗳 𝘄𝗼𝗿𝗸𝗶𝗻𝗴”.
People confuse flat structures as a “free for all”. Bring everyone together to agree the standard everyone will work to so there is consistency, not anarchy. A team agreement that sets out the way of working is a great way of doing this
𝟮 𝗪𝗵𝗲𝗻 𝗶𝘁 𝗰𝗼𝗺𝗲𝘀 𝘁𝗼 𝗰𝗼𝗺𝗺𝘂𝗻𝗶𝗰𝗮𝘁𝗶𝗼𝗻, 𝘆𝗼𝘂 𝗻𝗲𝗲𝗱 𝘁𝗼 𝗱𝗲𝗳𝗮𝘂𝗹𝘁 𝘁𝗼 𝘁𝗿𝗮𝗻𝘀𝗽𝗮𝗿𝗲𝗻𝗰𝘆
If you want people to take more responsibility you need to share information so they can do their job, you even have to trust them with the sensitive stuff
𝟯 𝗕𝗲 𝗰𝗹𝗲𝗮𝗿 𝗼𝗻 𝗱𝗲𝗰𝗶𝘀𝗶𝗼𝗻 𝗺𝗮𝗸𝗶𝗻𝗴 𝗿𝗶𝗴𝗵𝘁𝘀 𝗮𝗻𝗱 𝗱𝗲𝗹𝗲𝗴𝗮𝘁𝗲 𝗿𝗲𝘀𝗽𝗼𝗻𝘀𝗶𝗯𝗶𝗹𝗶𝘁𝘆 𝗰𝗹𝗲𝗮𝗿𝗹𝘆
People need explicit permission to make decisions and take responsibility. So you need to work with individuals and groups to define how much authority they have to act. You also need to clarify the process for making decisions. Will people need to take advice, will it be consent-based decision making, can someone have veto?
𝟰 𝗥𝗲𝗺𝗲𝗺𝗯𝗲𝗿, 𝘁𝗲𝗮𝗺𝘀 𝗮𝗻𝗱 𝗼𝗿𝗴𝗮𝗻𝗶𝘀𝗮𝘁𝗶𝗼𝗻𝘀 𝗮𝗿𝗲𝗻’𝘁 𝘀𝘁𝗮𝘁𝗶𝗰
You have to constantly clarify and update peoples’ roles and ensure everyone is clear with each other. In a flat organisation, it’s easy for things to fall between the cracks or for there to be friction between overlapping roles
𝟱 𝗬𝗼𝘂 𝗻𝗲𝗲𝗱 𝘁𝗼 𝗲𝗾𝘂𝗶𝗽 𝘆𝗼𝘂𝗿 𝗽𝗲𝗼𝗽𝗹𝗲 𝘄𝗶𝘁𝗵 𝘁𝗵𝗲 𝘁𝗼𝗼𝗹𝘀 𝘁𝗼 𝗱𝗲𝗮𝗹 𝘄𝗶𝘁𝗵 𝗽𝗲𝗿𝗳𝗼𝗿𝗺𝗮𝗻𝗰𝗲 𝗽𝗿𝗼𝗯𝗹𝗲𝗺𝘀 𝗮𝗻𝗱 𝗿𝗲𝘀𝗼𝗹𝘃𝗲 𝗱𝗶𝗳𝗳𝗲𝗿𝗲𝗻𝗰𝗲𝘀 𝗼𝗳 𝗼𝗽𝗶𝗻𝗶𝗼𝗻:
Peer to peer feedback is the lifeblood of a flat structure. However, you need to give them the skills and the training to have these conversations
There are a wealth of resources to help you if you’re looking to revisit your flat structure or to set one up. A good place to start if you’re thinking of working this way is Frederic Laloux‘s classic book “Reinventing Organisations”.
Dani and I are always happy to chat if you want to assess how ready you are and the steps you need to take!