The Flat Organization… Not Flatter Just Flat

A manager leaves a role and the organization doesn’t fill the position. Responsibilities and tasks are distributed and business continues as normal. Initially, the employees feel the strain of being responsible for more, but eventually, it’s work as usual. Does this sound familiar? Well, this organization is now one level flatter.

Businesses are increasingly adopting or creating a flat organizational structure. The business decides to eliminate management and allow employees to be self-sufficient decisions makers who have access to either a CEO or a few high-level leaders. However, is it possible to completely eliminate leadership at all levels, even the c-suite?

After reading Flat: The New Black? chapter 8 of A World Gone Social by Ted Coiné and Mark Babbitt, I think this could become a reality for many businesses and the norm for new organizations. A flat organization takes pride in establishing a culture so rich and expectations so precise that empowered employees can make well-informed decisions, which increases employee engagement and collaboration.

While new companies can simply make this their culture, existing companies will struggle with the political and operational changes this forces on all employees. It will not be a great fit for all companies; however, if competitors switch to this type of structure, it may not be an option, it may be a requirement.  As Coiné and Babbitt note, “Change happens only as the result of insurmountable market pressure” and we are on the cusp (92).

teamwork3When an organization has absolutely zero bosses, like Morning Star, Valve and even the Israeli Army, it has trusts employees to make the right decisions and hire employees who have the motivation and dedication to self-supervise. A flat organization can also have some great benefits, like cost savings with no outrageous salaries and increased innovation due to increased teamwork. Employees will be more involved because it’s their business too.

While I think flatter organizations are more prepared for the future business world, a completely flat organization does’t seem probable for all. Employees are going to want promotions, and if they can’t get them, it may be a dissatisfying.   Organizations will need to have a plan in place to ensure employees are improving and moving forward in their roles. Also, if an industry gets too big, they may need to “behave like a small firm” like W.L. Gore & Associates does as discussed in A World Gone Social (99).

While flat seems promising, organizations have a tendency for natural leaders to surface. Whether it’s the organization’s creator or a CEO, a leader usually influences how the business is ran.  However, I think organizations can get better at encouraging employees to make decisions. Too often business operations are stagnant, managers are spread too thin and employees are frustrated because easy decisions can’t be made by the line-level.  If organizations want to remain competitive, a flatter organization structure will reduce costs while increasing employee engagement.

Would you want to work for a completely flat organization? Do you think your organization could make the transition? Let me know in the comment section below.

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