Hierarchies in a Flat Organization

Modern businesses no longer need strict heirarchies, but that doesn't mean switching to a completely flat organization.

heads up: this is a pretty old post, it may be outdated.

I once worked at a company that had a self-proclaimed "flat organization". We often used the phrase "first among equals". At least one Business writer says this is a growing trend. The lack of a hierarchy was empowering – at least for me. But it came with downsides: indecisiveness, unaccountability, and bad incident response.

I’d guess that hierarchies have an inflection point of effectiveness at some point in a population. A project with three people don't need much structure. At twenty, some hierarchy is necessary. A thousand people need a strong hierarchy. I'm not sure what the numbers really are, but they must be somewhat related to Dunbar's number and a 2 million-year genetic disposition toward family groups.

The individuals involved must change the numbers. But, so will the available technology, which can remove whole sections from the bottom of a hierarchy tree. This leads to a flatter hierarchy. Some examples:

  • Email enabled direct communication, eliminating the typing pool, mail boys, and filing assistants.
  • Manufacturing automation (soon 3D printing) eliminated factory workers' jobs. This has the secondary effect of eliminating related hierarchies like unions.

When I worked at a flat organization, we organized into small teams of about 5-7 people. Each team was solely responsible for a project or a unique component of a larger project.

What we missed, was giving these teams need an official leader. That leader should be accountable the highest practical level and be an active contributor to the daily work. Spotify, for example, works like this.

Further Reading

A great summary of the organization structures at small-to-medium sized tech companies that I’ve seen.

Scaling an organization is about maintaining an individual's sense of accountability.

Decisions still happened, but without an agreed-upon process, there was no accountability. … “The goal of consensus,” the handbook continued, “is not the selection of several options, but the development of one decision which is the best for the whole group. It is synthesis and evolution, not competition and attrition.” … Consensus consistently empowered cranks, malcontents, and even provocateurs to lay claim to a group’s attention and gum up the works…

via The Theology of Consensus

A post with a very comprehensive reading listHolocracy is causing a 50% higher turn-over rate for Zappos

Github's flat organization peaked at about 300 people. They're moving to a more hierarchical structure