When Buffer first moved to a self-management model, we moved to a completely flat structure.

We just let loose and the message was “everyone go figure out what you want to do and work on, without too much guidance or leadership.” We talked about some of those challenges recently here.

In short, to describe what “flattening” an organization means exactly, here is what we did:

  • Removed all managers that would help decide what someone would work on
  • Stopped all 1:1’s and mentorship sessions to avoid top down interactions
  • Had all previous managers step into more day-to-day roles and tasks again
  • Let people pick and choose completely freely what area or project they want to get involved. The one guidance we provided was the “advice process” to be used to make good decisions for what to work on.

Within the first few months of being completely flat, slowly but surely a few things started to feel quite odd. People were easily lost, especially those that had just joined Buffer. More experienced people often didn’t quite see a place to help out and share ideas around which direction a project could take.

The way I would describe it is that the amount of freedom people had, with absolutely no guidance, expectations or accountability, was pretty overwhelming.

what we got wrong about self management

The misconception of flat structure

We eventually started to discuss whether this is the right setup for us. We concluded that it wasn’t, yet we were uncertain about how to move forward still.

We started to have this big knot in our brains. We had talked so much about being self-managed, about transcending the traditional management paradigm, and yet now we were realizing that there was still hierarchy?

Frankly, sitting with this question for some time was a great test, as it brought up many emotions around doubt in discussions between Joel and myself.

I now believe that, for us, seeking a flat structure was a misperception of what self-management means.

This is one of the many lessons and possibly one of the biggest misconceptions we’ve learnt about over the past 9 months or so, ever since Buffer moved to become a self-managed organization. It’s one that stands out in particular because it creates some of the most confusion both internally and externally when we talk about how we’re set up as an organization.

The paradox of power in self-managed organization

This was (and honestly, remains!) a big paradox in my and many of our team members’ heads. Luckily, Frederic Laloux, who wrote Reinventing Organizations, has been able to describe this paradox much more eloquently than I ever could:

“Here we stumble upon a beautiful paradox: people can hold different levels of power, and yet everyone can be powerful. If I’m a machine operator―if my background, education, interests, and talents predispose me for such work―my scope of concern will be more limited than yours, if your roles involve coordinating the design of a whole new factory. And yet, if within what matters to me, I can take all necessary actions using the advice process, I have all the power I need.”

Embracing this paradox without being paralyzed by it, we felt we needed to make a big change again. Hierarchy has once again become a central part of how we work again at Buffer. 

Embracing a reality of hierarchy

The key realization here was that people by nature have a unique place within Buffer that isn’t created equal.

This goes back to the forest analogy: Not every tree has the same height, age and need of water and sunlight. That doesn’t mean that it’s more or less important because of its features. It does, however, mean that it may have a different standing because of these differences.

The best example we’ve experienced is when brand new people join the company. They naturally look towards more experienced and skilled people that are already part of the team, to help them figure out the best first steps.

Another example was that, as founders, people were looking towards Joel and me for guidance around company vision and didn’t feel like they could just take on that task themselves. There was a level of natural hierarchy that somewhat self-selected people for roles they are suited for.

As part of embracing hierarchy again, there are a couple of other key things we brought back:

Higher level work

Embracing higher level, strategy work that provides guidance and leadership is something we feel has had a big impact already since we brought it back a few months ago.

What we neglected for quite some time was that higher level work is not a contradiction to self-management. People who are working on certain tasks find a lot of value in hearing about higher level guidance and direction and vice versa.

Things like “product vision,” “marketing vision,” and so forth are important and valuable—and if no one takes care of them, we can get lost easily.

As we’re building our own software tool called “HQ” to map everything that’s going on within Buffer, here’s an example of how this looks like for all of Buffer’s products. As you can see, there are four faces to the higher level “product” area and then more faces next to each individual product area within “Buffer products:”

HQ product

Mentoring sessions

Early on in our self-management journey we took more of a “sink or swim” approach and abandoned the mentoring and coaching sessions we previously had in place.

We don’t feel that’s the right method anymore, so we brought back one-on-one mentoring meetings. The structure of these is slightly different now—instead of performance updates, it’s become a playground to work through challenges and bounce concerns and worries off someone who might have been through similar struggles in the past and can now offer some sound advice for you.

Sometimes, all you need is to just spell out what’s going on in your mind and that by itself is enough to help you solve a challenge. Simply creating a safe space between a mentor and someone looking to grow has been a very important aspect to return to.

This change especially has had a big impact for me personally, to feel more connected with team members and to feel the pulse of what’s going on within Buffer. I’m really glad we’re doing these again.

Actualized hierarchy vs. traditional hierarchy

When we started to move towards embracing natural hierarchy, someone on the Buffer team asked very fittingly: “How might this be different the previous structure we’ve had?”

The question of how what we have now is different than a traditional management structure is a super important one. When we discussed this post internally before publishing it, Niel had a wonderful definition:

“For me it’s always felt like the hierarchy that is talked about in self-management is a reflection or perhaps an interpretation of the experience of team members in the organization but also combined with their tendency or passion to fulfill a high-order (leader) role. The term ‘actualized hierarchy’ always hit the spot for me. It’s a representation of hierarchy rather than one that was designed or prescribed.”

I think the term “actualized hierarchy” is one that helps describe our current setup the best. In a second instance, Niel shared the importance of how the “higher level work” doesn’t control the rest:

“Also, perhaps more importantly, in self-managed hierarchy, the people who are perceived to be as ‘higher’ up in the hierarchy don’t necessarily have the ability to veto or control the people below them.”

Over to you

It feels incredibly refreshing to bring back an inclusion of hierarchy at Buffer, and I’m sure we’ll keep evolving our thoughts and process on this.

Whenever the question might come up around whether self-managed teams must also be flat, I hope that pointing to this piece might be helpful.

I’m sure there might be many more questions around this topic, as it’s still quite paradoxical. I would love to hear your thoughts on this in the comments!

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Written by Leo Widrich

Co-founder and COO at Buffer. I enjoy writing about Buffer’s lessons learnt, social media tips and updates to Buffer. For some more personal posts, check out leostartsup.

  • Roman Burleson

    I love how Buffer is continually evolving in the way they handle their internal methods while maintaining such a strong quality externally for their customers. I think that speaks a lot to the team and their willingness to always strive for something greater in themselves and the place they work.

    I have been curious how these developments truly affect the internal workings though. To make such shifts must provide some disruption in the flow through role developments and hierarchy changes. You obviously hire quite adaptable individuals. How quickly do these changes occur though? Is this a process that will transform in a day or transpire over months?

    • LeoWid

      Great question! I think the way I’d describe it is that the process change is simmering in many of our heads for a while, then when we talk about it, the change can happen quite fast, within days sometimes.

  • Good post Leo, thanks.

    This reminds me of what happened when Google decided to cut out middle managers. After making that decision, Larry Page discovered that all of the work they had been doing ended up going through him, creating a huge unworkable bottleneck.

    For me, the main point is that we may or may not need managers – but we ALWAYS need management. The firms that are successful with flat structures find ways to build critical tasks such as mentoring and strategy development into their small team structures. It’s hard to do, but not impossible.

    Thanks for being so open about what’s going on at Buffer – it’s great to hear about first-hand experiences and experiments.

  • Neil McKay

    This reminds me of the way circuses work as described in the book Ishmael by Daniel Quinn. In a circus, a boss is just another job that has to be done. An elephant trainer has his area of expertise and so does a clown. It’s assumed they all know their jobs and it’s also assumed they will all pull together to pitch the tent and tear it down. It’s not a heirarchy but rather it’s clearly understood roles, some of which are dependent on others, some of which are pretty independent. But everyone’s goal is to do their part to put on the best circus performance.

    • Love this example! Thanks for sharing, Neil!

    • wtpayne

      Absolutely. Management is just another specialism (albeit a tricky and subtle one). Ultimately, responsibility for delivering is down to the team.

  • Love how you guys are ever-evolving and never static. You test! And that you tell the world about it, making everyone rethink their safe little status quo way of doing work. Bravo, Buffer!

  • Kody Atkinson

    Thank you for sharing! I think one of the key things I took from reading Laloux is that Teal is by nature an evolving system unique to each organization. I love how these posts show how Buffer is developing its own unique version of Teal.

  • Kai Koehler

    Absolutely amazed by the way you are approaching hierarchy, structure and self-management. That’s the right way to go for real personal development which grows the joy at work and brings the business to flourish as natural consequence.
    Thank you for sharing your experiences.

  • Ryan Easttum

    First off, thank you for the transparency and visibility – it’s refreshing and enlightening. Second, congrats on trying something new, foreign, and risky. Third, even more congrats for evolving, constantly questioning, and just plain communicating well internally to see the need. That’s awesome. I love the concept of a flat org, it seems so egalitarian, but as you point out, it has its flaws and runs counter to some instinctual and learned behaviors. Unfortunately, we aren’t The Borg (cybernetic, interconnected, creatures, with singular thought) and can’t just assimilate. Your – and our – humanness is what makes us/you great. When we remember we’re human first – before role, title, function, etc – we do great things. I’m pleased to see Buffer continue to do great things and help lead the charge for others. Bravo!

  • Always great to get continued insight to how things are happening at Buffer and your experiments with self-management. Thanks for this Leo.

    I am a bit surprised that mentoring went away when moving to a self-managed style. From what I’ve seen from self-managed organizations (and from working for one), people always reach out to those with more expertise on topics they are less knowledgeable in and people actively seek the advice when they need it. My boss may have been the CEO but he would go seek my thoughts whenever he was unsure of something just as I would when I needed it. All shared their specialties and skills and provided mentoring when needed. I can see how it can be hard for those first coming in to be comfortable asking for that help without a set system to offer when required.

    Thanks for continuing to share these interesting looks inside how things work at Buffer. The way everyone keeps learning from the different initiatives tested ensures you really fail. Love the spirit of constantly testing and making adjustments based on your findings.

    • Hi Ben – this response made me think of our blog post on founder / COO relationships. We’re interested in the different modes that founders and COOs (or any other diad of different roles in an organization) use when engaging with each other to solve a problem. This post isn’t written from a self-management perspective, but the concepts apply to any organization with roles. I hope it’s useful to you!

      http://onhumanenterprise.com/founder-coo-pulling-out-the-tangles/

  • Catherine Diebel

    I love how people at Buffer are open to trying new things, talking about issues, and refining the plan. Learning what works and what doesn’t work for your team allows everyone to grow and stretch. Tweaking an innovative idea shows that everyone is listening to each other. Congratulations on being open to making big changes, and to modifying to fit current circumstances. I am impressed.

  • Hierarchy of knowledge without hierarchy of authority.

    I subscribe.

  • Design Dance Party

    I’m really excited what the “future workplace” looks like, thank you for your transparency and learnings!

    We currently work at a flat structure at work, and though the company has best intentions with this flat structure, there are still managers that exist to keep a pipeline of information flowing from the CEO to their respective teams (so the owner of the company does not have too many direct reports which would cause a bottle neck). These managers are more fondly acknowledged as mentors to their department team members. Their role is not to veto decision making as you have mentioned, but rather nurture and grow their talent so that the business operates at optimal speed, ensuring everyone in the team can “take the wheel” whenever needed.

    My biggest management discovery was: I never wanted to be a micro manager and often wanted to encourage my direct reports to discover answers on their own (which is a style I often thrive in) however in my one-on-one meetings, I discovered a few of my direct reports (who I thought were extremely talented and didn’t need my supervision) actually wanted more guidance and support and positive reassurance they were on the right path.

    Ken Blanchard leadership II was a really great help in learning about leadership styles particularly with newer employees. The secret is not deciding where you think people are as a manager, but listening to what your co-workers need from you :-) http://oneleadershipgroup.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/SLII-graphic.gif (I’ve been meaning to update this inforgraphic, ha! It’s a bit old visually, but good content nonetheless :-) )

    Super cool stuff!

  • Thanks for the transparent update. It’s refreshing to hear an honest dialogue about a failure.

    I’m curious, as Buffer grows is there a fear of becoming more corporate? I get that the Buffer culture is almost anti-corporate, and for someone who works for a large corporation I understand why; however, do you think a significant increase in Buffer teammates will force Buffer to shift towards a corporate culture? Or do you think Buffer is the future of the corporate culture and that, as we advance, more companies will shift to hold similar values and processes as Buffer?

    My hope is for the latter, but I’m curious to hear what you think.

  • About 18 months ago, we had an organization-wide discussion and we decided to go flat too. I am happy to share that, so far, it’s worked for us.

    Here’s what we did/happened when we went that route:
    1. A few people, who could not adapt, quit
    2. The rest, adapted and are very happy in this environment and are still there
    3. We started talking about it and put it up explicitly on our careers page that we work in this fashion.
    4. As a result of 3, we started filtering out CVs who were not interested in such a culture, made our hiring process easy as we had to interview lesser people
    5. Over a period of time, we started getting profiles who were good self-managers
    6. Importantly, we ensured that there is guidance and leadership available – all the time. So, we started doing more trainings on soft skills like – time management, customer oneness, creating goals and building systems to achieve them, decision-making skills etc.

    Like you’ve mentioned, new joiners (or even existing people who were new to the concept) could get a little lost, but at no point did we let go of the mentorship. There was a strong induction process built (which by the way we call Incubation – as it essentially prepares you to manage your own startup) which ensured that newbies would be on their toes from day 1. And it’s not that people would not fail, but the support system (of other people) would help them in getting back on their feet.

    As an agency (serving clients), it was even more difficult for us to implement as clients always wanted one point of contact – which we can’t avoid. So that person becomes the Project Owner (PO) and would manage the client but internally, the project owner never needs to be a manager. There are various teams; content, social, SEO etc and the PO just takes stock of the situation every month before the client review. Yes, on a day to day basis, the PO drives the daily standup. But that’s about it. Rest, people are on their own. The leadership ensures whatever resources are needed (books, training etc) are made available.

    In my 18 month experience, my learning has been that the leadership has to ENABLE the people. Once they are empowered, results become visible.

    • Thanks for sharing, Abhinav! Really helpful for me side i am also building an agency based on enabling the team for self-management!

      • That’s good to know Stefan. Let me know how it goes, will be happy to help you with this.

    • Susan Basterfield

      Hi Abhinav Thanks from me too! This is such a great example of being courageous enough to let the people decide whether or not they want to work in this way, and being brave enough to let them go if they didn’t.

      • Hi Susan, you’re welcome :)
        I guess, we all have to make tough choices throughout our life, especially if one is an entrepreneur. This was one of those tough calls!

    • I am curious about something, you refer to flat organization but then you refer to leadership: “the leadership has to ENABLE the people.” This still implies some level of tier above the “flat” org. Not that necessarily moves the resources but guides the organization and in that case, this feels like it’s still only a slightly flatter version of what Buffer is doing.

      I love, love, love your commitment to training in #6. Skills improvement ne of the things most orgs fail to invest in, whether they are a pancake or a redwood cedar in terms of hierarchy.

      • Hi Jay, thanks for asking that, gives me an opportunity to explain.

        I must mention, we’re an agency, so everything I say below will be in terms of projects & clients and not necessarily for the organization. Which means various people have various goals which maybe unrelated to each other, unlike a product company like Buffer – where everyone would have the same eventual goal.

        The way the “leadership” works for us is mostly as a guide and not as a gatekeeper. So the people working on a (client) project:

        (i) do not need approvals from leaders for creatives etc
        (ii) get information/praise/flak directly from the clients instead of information filtered through a senior
        (iii) have complete ownership and responsibility for implementing any new ideas or ongoing initiatives

        But just like in any team or family, the juniors do take advice from their seniors. These seniors are the ones whom I am calling leaders here. We have people from 2 to 20 years of experience, so its always good to learn from the experienced :) The trainings that I mentioned, is what I mean by enabling people. So we enable people in terms of better “business thinking” or “time management”, etc – which eventually help people do their job better.

        Trust this answers your question. If not, please let me know, will be happy to go deeper.

        Cheers!

      • chuckblakeman

        @JayGilmore:disqus – my take – leadership enables by engaging, but leadershp never enables by empowering. People show up fully empowered and for me to say I’m empowering them is for me to give them a little bit of my power – a very top-down and patronizing action. But even though people show up fully empowered and able to do great things, they always show up disengaged (in neutral) until I give them a reason to engage. Leadership provides vision, coaching, mentoring, resources, encouragement, guidance, and anything I else needed to fully engage people. Note: leadership and management are completely different things. Self-managed eliminates management (people telling us what to do), but never eliminates leadership (vision, support, etc.), which is just another function in a company, like administration, production, etc.

  • cool update. It could be interesting to learn more about your “HQ” tool. I think that would be of interest to many others.

    • Andy Waschick

      Seconded. We could use something like that in our organization.

  • Thanks for sharing and explaining this evolution Leo! I’m wondering how you avoid the pitfall of seeing the strategy-makers getting power over the others? For example, the person who deals with marketing strategy is eventually setting up a framework and the rest of the marketing roles should work within these guidelines right? (otherwise it makes this strategy-making useless). But in the end doesn’t it allow to give a veto to someone whose work doesn’t fit the guidelines?

    • chuckblakeman

      @sabinesafi:disqus – There is a radical difference between a “firing hierarchy” and leadership. The traditional hierarchy is built on the trump card of, “If you don’t do what I say, I will fire you.” Leadership is built on people naturally following leaders because they are good at leading, like others are good at production, administration, technology, creating, etc. You avoid allowing leaders to take over the power by ensuring that a) hiring/firing is the responsibility of each team, not “managers”, and b) all decisions that must be carried out by the team, are made by the team, even if leadership has input in them. Those two things keep power from being usurped back to leaders (who train and get out of the way) who want to act like managers (command and control).

  • Juliet

    Thank you so much for sharing these learnings, Leo! I’ve been experimenting the self-management within my own team for a while, though it’s a bit different as I can only do this within my own team, while the company is still based on traditional hierarchy. I also found it doesn’t really work if everyone simply goes off to do whatever s/he sees fit. Certain necessary work gets neglected, and people sometimes look for structures and guidance.
    One thing I try to do often is to ask the team open questions about certain area if I notice that area isn’t being address by anyone in the team. We also use tool like Slack so anyone can ask for advice from the entire team. Initially the team would only look to me for answer. I’d post the question to the entire team and welcome suggestions and their perspectives, after a few times, the team feels much more comfortable to come up with solutions themselves. I think it’s important to have a “facilitator” who really believes in making self management work, and initially this would probably be the “manager”. Slowly, the dynamic would change, and everyone in the team feels more comfortable to take on things themselves. Though it’s great to have everyone work on things they enjoy personally the most, there are always “less interesting” things that need to be done within an organisation. When the dynamic is right, the team actually comes together to share those tasks so that everyone gets more time to do what they enjoy :) The most challenging thing for me by far is certainly the traditional hierarchy in the rest of the company for sure.

    I know what you mean by the “natural hierarchy”, but I can’t help but feel that we should together come up with a better term for it! Something that’s more dynamic, organic and fluid perhaps? I believe people are simply “different” in the roles they play based on knowledge, experience and expertise, etc. And in different cases, a different person might become the advisor. I know I’ve always learnt something whenever we hire someone new! Let me start by throwing some idea here…like “peerarchy”?

  • Tamas Kalman

    there are so many good things about buffer, i’m surprised you didn’t get it right at the first time. it’s well known at most ‘flat’ organizations that structures/hierarchies are emerging all the time around projects. flat doesn’t means there is no structure; it means structures are dynamically allocated instead of the other way around.

    https://michaelochurch.wordpress.com/2012/09/03/tech-companies-open-allocation-is-your-only-real-option/

  • Makes complete sense. There is a bit of theory about this – its called situational leadership. Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones have done some great research in a book called “Why Should Anyone Be Led By You”. Worth a look.

  • Firstly, thanks for sharing your wonderful experiment in self-organization. I have no doubt you’re building something wonderful over there. Keep going! :)

    From what you describe, it sounds like you’re inching close to Peter Koenig’s view of organisations, and his work might give you some clues as to where to take your experiment next.

    Beneath whatever org structure you design, be that through architecting an org chart the old school way, or allowing a more emergent structure to appear through explicit processes like Holacracy, running in the background there’s a more ephemeral, creative hierarchy. I think this what you’re getting towards when you talk about an ‘actualized hierarchy’.

    Crucially, this creative hierarchy has at the top (or root, depending on what way round you like to envision it) one individual founder – not equal co founders. I think as you continue on your journey you’ll discover more about the importance of the founder role at the top of the creative hierarchy. Don’t fall into the ‘Green’ trap of being afraid of individual creative authority. It’s different to ‘Orange’ command and control. It comes from a more needy, vulnerable place.

    Here’s a bit more on the subject with notes from Frederic Laloux at the end.

    https://medium.com/@tomnixon/resolving-the-awkward-paradox-in-frederic-laloux-s-reinventing-organisations-f2031080ea02

    …and give me a shout if you’d like to know more.

  • Hamid Shojaee

    There are a lot of misconceptions about building a flat organization. People assume no leadership, flat pay, no advancement opportunities, a democracy where everyone is treated the same, etc. These things don’t have to be a part of a flat org, but they are challenging problems to solve.

    I’ve build my companies, Axosoft.com and PureChat.com as flat orgs. I gave a short talk a while back to my team about the details: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dvpK9y41-ww

    You might find it interesting.

  • Great insights! Could you also share how much direct authority or influence managers at Buffer have in promoting direct reports? Do the managers create a professional development plan to answer the question “How do I get promoted”? Thanks in advance.

  • Dori

    Thanks so much for openly sharing Buffer’s progress here! One question comes to mind: With your return to 1on1’s and mentorship, are the same people in mentorship relationships that were there before the flat experiment (e.g. are people who used to be managers meeting with prior direct reports)? Or are there different folks in mentorship roles now?

  • Andrew John Fellows

    Businessses always form a natural hierachy of dominant people leading, middle order dominants as middle mangers, middle order submiisives as workers and highly submissives as analysts as that is what peoples natural character traits relating to their social position lead them to do.

    How many levels of management hierachy you have should reflect how complicated the task is. The more complicated and varied the task the more levels of management you need.

    Dominant people don’t like detail as it bogs down their quick thinking required in the heat of the board room. middle order people like to be lead and told what to do then just get on with it. submissive people always try and improve the way things are done.

    The trick is for for the dominant man at the top is to listen in detail to the submissive man at the bottom who gets everything handed down to them as that way the society is ruled from both ends of the scale. This is how dear operate in a heard. This is the premise of the emerging role of the business analyst and businesses would be far more effective if every business had one.

    Most businesses will already have a business analyst working for them but not realise it. They are probably the quiet ones who are always thought of as chalenging and difficult. Be fair to them they are only trying to solve the cause of the cause of a problem that the rest haven’t spotted as they are to busy trying to deal with the fallout to solve the original cause of the problem.

    A business analyst may need a bit of time to explain the problem in full without interuption or saying you don’t know what your talking about or your not listening or it has to be done this way for whatever reason. They will already know why things are done the way they are and are proposing a better alternative. They may not be right and might not have the best soltution but once the real problem is found the whole team can work on the best solution

  • Josef Davies-Coates

    Thanks for trying out stuff and for sharing your journey – great stuff! :)

    I couldn’t help wonder, however, if you’ve done any research into the many successful flat co-ops all over the world?

    In the UK for example we’ve got Suma Wholefoods who employ 100s of people who all get the same pay and who all share all tasks (including ‘higher level’ tasks as you call them). They are growing fast and pay double the going market rate.

    It feels a bit like you tried to re-invent the wheel without speaking to or perhaps even reading about existing wheel makers.

    In general I’m often completely befuddled by how little awareness there seems to be about the many successful co-operative models that already exist at scale.

    On a related note, will you be going to this Platform Cooperativism event in NY in November? https://www.facebook.com/events/904949399562764/

    Oh, and people here will likely be interested in this new book from the FairShares Association (http://www.fairshares.coop/ ):
    http://shura.shu.ac.uk/10198/

    Finally: who owns Buffer? To me, shared ownership is just as important – if not more so – than shared management/ governance. Indeed, research would seem to suggest that where workers are also owners productivity increases.

  • It takes a lot of courage to change direction on something like this. Kudos.

    One thing we’re testing: everyone chooses their mentor, and the mentor receives a stipend for the additional work of the mentoring relationship. This ensures new hires have some natural hierarchical guidance without requiring a formal structure.

  • Stan Karpenko

    Check out Valve structure. Very flat and seems to work well. Heres a link to their introduction manual – loved it! http://www.valvesoftware.com/company/Valve_Handbook_LowRes.pdf

  • mark

    This really reminds me of my own company and structure http://www.coupofy.com, which grew much faster than so we had huge problems to manage hierarchy.

    I certainly loved your ideas, will try to implement with my team!

  • Taylor McLeod

    Wow. Mad gratitude for sharing. Many more companies should be on this journey alongside you.

  • Implicit structures can end up rewarding the aggressive, vocal and socially connected people, at the expense of the more thoughtful, reserved, or disadvantaged. Avoiding *isms and encouraging real workplace diversity is very hard to achieve without some structure and framework. The question is whether you choose to define it, with intent and planning, or treat it as some magical emergent property. “The tyranny of structurelessness” http://www.jofreeman.com/joreen/tyranny.htm is an excellent read. I highly recommend any company thinking of “going flat” to read this, and also to look at Belbin profiling (way better than Myers-Briggs) as a way of helping everybody work better in organically organised teams and groups.

  • mwayland

    There are 3 key words in this post that point to the paradox and dilemma you’ve faced, “… people by nature…”

    What many companies fail to appreciate is that employees are first and foremost people/ humans. In fact they’ve been people far longer than they’ve been employees. Inherent human behaviour trumps employee behaviour every time.

    Change only works when you treat people as respected humans BEFORE you start treating them as valued employees.

    The distinction is subtle, though immensely powerful.

  • I dont think anything should be completely flat. Sam Walton said that it shouldn’t be more than a 3 person hierarchy or it gets too bureacratic-but that’s for his retail industry.
    I generally agree with Sam. 3 person is flat enough but not too flat

  • Brian Hennessy

    In running my company, I ran into the same struggle: Hierarchy vs. flat organization. The wonderful thing I found is that it is a false choice. No choice is ever binary, black or white. You can have structure without hierarchy. Your forest reference is a perfect expression of this confusion between hierarchy and structure. A forest is not a hierarchy, it is a network. General Motors circa 1925 is a pure hierarchy, Visa circa 1984 or Wikipedia circa 2016 is a pure, decentralized network; as is a beehive, forest or brain. Between these two extremes are all sorts of organizational options depending on whether your business model requires more control (like an operating room or chip fab) or more creativity (like a circus or theater company). Check out Dee Hock and his book: The Chaordic Organization.

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