Flat organizations have a very cruel dynamic which I will highlight in this post.
A flat organization is way of organizing which has no hierarchy or very few layers of hierarchy. Supposedly, these organizations are superior places to work, giving more room for creativity, abstaining from forcing decisions and less infighting and bureaucracy.
I have worked for 8 flat organizations. Two are listed on Wall Street and are technology powerhouses. Three are industrial/agricultural collectives in Israel, and three were start ups.
Here are a few shared dynamics between all 8 organizations.
- There was a huge gap between what the way that they operated, and the way they claimed that they operated.
- There was a power elite in all these organizations, whether or not the people held office or not.
- There was massive social pressure to conform.
- The culture of these organizations was viewed as a ritual, ie, one must behave according to the rules in the spirit of a blind leap of faith.
- There was a lot of apparent buy-in to decisions.
- A language developed to hint at disagreement without actually saying it. Eg, the goal is really tough, yet if we all hunker down, it may be possible.
- There was a lot of cynicism about organizational life.
- Decision making was a nightmare.
Organizations need hierarchies to coordinate, make decisions, allocate resources and manage the inevitable kindergarten that exists in all organizations. And often, there is a dirty diaper to change. Lack of hierarchy causes extreme dysfunction and massive anxiety, so a de facto hierarchy is re-construed under the “non-hierarchy”.
The challenge of good organizing is about making more effective hierarchies, not via taking away the very scaffolding which provides sanity against extreme anxiety, albeit many many negative side effects.
Meet three of my clients from the past: a Quebecois, an American and an Israeli. Jacques, Marshall and Zeev are three outstanding executives whose organizations have constantly over-performed for the last decade. Each manager has a critical flaw in his style.
Jacques sells all the time. When he should be consulting with his management team, he sells them his ideas. When he should be telling them what to do, he sells to sell them his ideas.
Zeev lacks emotional intelligence. Severely! Despite outstanding cognitive capabilities and strategic depth, he fails to factor people into his decisions.
Marshall commits his organization to impossible goals out of an almost fanatical religious belief in aggressive over-commitment. His teams constantly over achieve yet few executives (none) can stay with Marshall for more than one year due to mental and physical exhaustion.
Over my long career, I have worked with outstanding managers like these three on their critical (and near fatal) flaws. In this post, I want to share what I have learnt in the hope that can help someone.
- Many of these flaws are like chronic pain. They are here to stay. There are good times and bad times, but the flaw is best recognized as permanent. By doing so, appropriate expectations can be set.
- Taking the bull by its horns (“stop selling to me Jacques”) is rarely effective. Damage control strategies appear to be more effective. (What happens if your people don’t buy in, Jacques?)
- Working around the flaw has proven itself in many cases. (Zeev should empower his HR partner to provide input and guidance for to augment his poor instincts).
- Paradoxical interventions are very effective. For those who are not acquainted here is a link. Paradoxical intervention should not be practised without appropriate training. (Marshall, why not have your staff work on New Year’s eve? Just give them the appropriate carrot).
And the consultant must remember that he or she is not a brain surgeon. Dealing with critical flaws is a slow uphill crawl. It’s not about your own competence; don’t push to be overly effective otherwise you will lose your clients’ trust.