The cruelty of the so called flat organization

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.

  1. There was a huge gap between what the way that they operated, and the way they claimed that they operated.
  2. There was a power elite in all these organizations, whether or not the people held office or not.
  3. There was massive social pressure to conform.
  4. 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.
  5. There was a lot of apparent buy-in to decisions.
  6. 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.
  7. There was a lot of cynicism about organizational life.
  8. 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.


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14 thoughts on “The cruelty of the so called flat organization

  1. Allon,

    You are absolutely and hilariously correct! It is unbelievable when you are in it. Barry Oshry’s work on systems is good on this subject. There are lots of fine lines to be aware of, of course.
    I appreciate your insights as always.
    Hope you are well.

  2. Flat organizations are an interesting notion.

    Instead of the usual tall set-up where a Top Dog stands over his or her SLT (senior leader team) who in turn oversee all the silos, you have…wait a minute, you still have it even when you say you are “flat.” It’s the same.

    As I think about the many organizations I have seen, the only truly flat one I can point to is my family. When it come to decision making (like our recent vacation), my wife and I consult with our adult sons. While the decision making process took time, and getting everyone’s input and a final agreement was not easy, there was open communication and very little levelism (nobody pulled rank).

    Thanks, Allon. Very provocative. As usual.

  3. Not from my experience. Harvard’s Elizabeth Moss Kantor’s When Elephants Learn to Dance made a case for flat organizations when coupled with 2 other vital initiatives – putting the CEO at the bottom of the organization cart, and the customer at top (upside down organization chart to remind us who is most important) and stripping away ridiculous titles (like Executive Senior Vice President and General Manager that take up a whole business card – the Boutros Boutros Boutros Galli syndrome) for simple Managing Partner or Partner titles – and it worked at Canadian Royal Trust – we turned like a motor boat, not an aircraft carrier when it came to speedy decision-making, we got approvals quickly and efficiently – present a case, get a yes or no with maximum 3 levels of organization structure, we were compensated for what we did, not what we were called, and ROE increased every year as did share price. Better flat. Much Better.

  4. Once again, the organizations you mention show a lack of Polarity Thinking. The trick is to get hierarchy with as few as possible of its downsides and get the advantages of flat without its downsides.

  5. Allon, I always love your perspective. I have a couple of thoughts. One is that you cannot remove the human dynamic of status by stripping titles. I do notice that certain cultures, however, are flatter like the Danish. And, yes it does take longer to make decisions. However if that is the acceptable way to do things it doesn’t seem as frustrating as it would be for a USA exec. Org redesigns fail so often because they ignore the basics of social interaction. Provides lots of consulting work, so I guess that’s good for the economy.

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