What's one surefire way to get an innovative and exciting new project sidelined? In one word: bureaucracy. Too much managerial overhead can slow down productivity and discourage creativity. To combat this, companies like tech company GitHub, gaming software developer Valve and W.L. Gore, the company that created Gore-Tex, have adopted a "flat" organizational structure that has very few (if any) middle managers or formal job titles. Rather than relying on a hierarchy of managers, these companies aim to give employees the ability to organize themselves around projects that need to get done.
However, writes Klint Finley, contributor to Wired Enterprise, while a good idea in theory, "Critics say flat organizations can conceal power structures and shield individuals from accountability." In 1972, Jo Freeman, feminist scholar, speaker and author, wrote in her essay, The Tyranny of Structurelessness, "There is no such thing as a structureless group. Any group of people of whatever nature that comes together for any length of time for any purpose will inevitably structure itself in some fashion."
And recently, GitHub has been under fire from a former employee for these very issues, begging the question: is a flat structure a realistic option for businesses or do they just sound nice in theory? According to Dr. Richard Ronay, a professor at Columbia Business School and author of The Path to Glory Is Paved With Hierarchy, a company must choose the management style that best fits its goals and the personalities of its leaders. Here are a few things to keep in mind when considering a flat organizational structure.
Invisible Power Structures
One of the issues with flat non-hierarchical groups that Freeman points out is that most of the time there are power structures at work, they are just invisible, and therefore aren't held accountable for their actions. Writes Finley, "Companies like GitHub and Valve are not necessarily 'structureless.' They have a top layer of management responsible for the big decisions."
However, as former Valve employee Jeri Ellswort told the Grey Area podcast, "Valve was a lot like high school." Said Ellswort , "There are popular kids that have acquired power in the company. Then there’s the trouble makers, and everyone in between."
The Right Fit
A common way that flat structured organizations ensure that work always gets done without direct supervision is through hiring people who "fit the culture," writes Finley. While company culture is important, regardless of the organizational structure, it can sometimes deter diversity in hiring. It's important to balance culture fit with bringing in people who have a fresh perspective.
Food for Thought
While Finley points out that good and bad management can be found at any company, whether the organizational structure is hierarchical or flat, the recent comments from former employees of companies like GitHub and Valve show that company structures are extremely complex.