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The library of essays of Proakatemia

Reflections about my BL journey and why flat hierarchy does not work 



Kirjoittanut: Ariel Cohen - tiimistä SYNTRE.

Esseen tyyppi: Yksilöessee / 2 esseepistettä.
Esseen arvioitu lukuaika on 7 minuuttia.

Reflections about my BL journey and why flat hierarchy does not work 

 

Introduction 

 

In SYNTRE, we agreed to switch leaders after every semester so everyone would have the chance to practice leadership in reality and get eventually those necessary hours up. Last autumn, it was my turn to take the role of a business leader in SYNTRE, with the help of Lucas, who was chosen to be the team leader. Thanks to flat hierarchy, we can’t force anyone to take roles so it’s a difficult process if no one is interested in taking roles. Thankfully we were interested in the roles so this time things went surprisingly smoothly. Here is a reflection of how it went and thoughts about the horrors of flat hierarchy.  

 

In the beginning, this role felt exciting and interesting. In my thoughts, it was a good opportunity to lead the organization to a direction that l believed to be the right and test my leadership skills. Also, the fact that l was lacking some leadership hours gave that extra motivation. Our last leaders focused more on the learning part in SYNTRE, so our pajas started to improve and we accomplished a great structure in studies. Everything went smoothly and everyone knew the direction where we were heading on that semester. The downside of this was the lack of projects and the flow of money. This was something that l wanted to change and shift our focus more on projects, rather than learning.  

 

Beginning and ending 

 

Together with Lucas, we agreed to start the semester by finishing SYNTRE’s values, mission, purpose, and goals, something that we started at the beginning of school and for some reason never finished them. We agreed, not to use too much time for this since we have been talking about them for over a year and we needed to have them in order to move on as a company. This was perhaps the first mistake since we pushed through them and no one seemed to even remember them, or work according to them. Even we forgot about them after a while.  

 

At this point, we already used many pajas and we had our next issue. We had a learning journey, sales days, and holidays incoming. It was hard to have any structure since there always was something to break the flow and at least, l started to have issues figuring out the direction we were heading to. We managed to get through the learning journey and sales days, where in my opinion, l had the first feeling of accomplishment in leadership. We faced big issues with motivation and the lack of people attending to it, but we managed to turn it around and got some learnings and wins as a team. We had our own shark tank event where we pitched our ideas to the team and then held an innovation session to cultivate them. In our team meetings, we started to go through every project and tried to unite the team by listing the issues in them and the help needed. We came up with a new common ressu system, where we as a team gather 50 % of the monthly payments and the rest would come from our own individual projects. We held our own sales days where we sold Tampereen saunalauttaristeilyt and managed to sell them with over 10 000 , which got us the first 50 % of payments together as a team.  

 

Already during the semester, l started to have major issues with a flat hierarchy. Most of the people, who are reading this essay, probably know that most of the team companies have a flat hierarchy. On paper, it sounds new and exciting approach to organizational structure but in reality, it just does not work. I never figured out, how to lead, if you are not really a leader, how to make important decisions and give tasks to people.  

 

I’ve done an essay previously about flat hierarchy and mostly talked about its beauty but this one focuses more on why it just does not work.  

 

Coup de grâce: Why flat organizations fail (French term for the final, decisive blow of action that ends or finishes something.) (Marriam-webster) 

 

A few years ago, the number of flat companies and organizations started to boom and it became a thing. If we go back in time, no CEO would ever have believed that this would work. As talked earlier, on paper it sounds great. Why do we need leaders or managers? Why do we need any structure? We can make this work, we are grown-ups right??  

 

Big companies, such as Buffer, Medium, and Zappos, have failed miserably with flat hierarchies and learned hard lessons. Understanding why they have failed, maybe helps you to avoid them yourself, no matter the size or type of organization.  

 

 

https://getlighthouse.com/blog/flat-organizational-structure-fails/

 

The image abow, illustrates well the complexity geometrically. The more you add people to this lovely pool of freedom and autonomy, the amount of complexity rises with an insane amount of interactions. You just can’t manage all of this without any kinda hierarchy. 

 

Without any structure and managers, it is much harder to get things done and to make sure the right person knows what to do. If you for example have 50 employees, no one most likely knows what is happening around them and is able to make effective, detailed decisions. Without structure, it is hard to get people to specialize and move forward quickly.  

This was the issue why Medium moved away from holacracy (no managers) and they wrote about it in a blog post:  

 

“Our experience was that it was difficult to coordinate efforts at scale. In the purest expression of Holacracy, every team has a goal and works autonomously to deliver the best path to serve that goal. But for larger initiatives, which require coordination across functions, it can be time-consuming and divisive to gain alignment.” 

 

In a nutshell, more people in the company=more delegating authority is needed. Hoping it would happen organically is a pretty hard thing to accomplish.  

 

In theory, the flat organizational structure is great. The best person to do the job steps up and addresses it, and everyone supports them. More people are allowed to take leadership roles and always ensures that the right person does the job. As seen in action, it is not how it works in practice. As the company grows, the flat structure goes from an asset to a blocker of success. These challenges are not specific to any particular industry or mission but are frequently experienced as flat organizations expand their operations. 

In the absence of a predefined structure, an inherent structure tends to emerge. However, this organic structure lacks the formal authority and accountability that designated leaders possess. Dealing with this informal hierarchy often leads to conflict and confusion, ultimately impeding the company’s progress and efficiency. (Evanish n.d)

 

Important decision-making can become a mess 

 

When work and decisions are self-organized, many bad consequences might happen. The hardest ones are who is accountable for the hard decisions that must be made, like discipline, firing people, or promoting them. Should everyone’s opinion matter? Can everyone have an opinion about everything? Can 20 or even 54 people come to conclusions that work for everyone? Can they really? In my own experience, it is a horrible mess where always there is someone who gets sad. Should there perhaps be even some kinda group that would handle these important decisions? Well, that would not be how flat hierarchies work.  

 

Extra bureaucracy and uncertainty on key decisions is a major threshold and cause a variety of problems.  

 

“It’s naive because good ideas are not always received well by self-interested actors, especially when you’re dealing with people of mixed experienced levels and backgrounds, as any company with more than a few employees is. 

The manager’s role is to make a critical analysis of the proposal and make what is frequently a difficult choice about what will be in the organization’s long-term interest.”  

 

Is a self-organized committee able to come to the right decision that everyone approves? How to keep such a group accountable?  

Sucks to say, problems caused by it hurts everyone’s jobs and put the business at risk. (Evanish n.d)

 

So what to do instead? 

 

As Robert Sutton, Stanford professor and best-selling leadership author said:  

 

“It is impossible to find groups or organizations where all members have roughly equal status and power. Whether researchers study people, dogs, or baboons, hierarchies are evident after just minutes of observation.” 

 

To avoid the pitfalls commonly associated with flat organizations and ensure the respect of all employees, it is crucial to focus on developing effective leaders. When designing and growing your organization, be intentional about defining the role and responsibilities of your leaders. Here are a few key areas to consider: 

 

  1. Gain buy-in from skeptics: Early employees, who hold significant experience and influence, may be skeptical of introducing organizational structure or hierarchy. It is important to engage them in understanding the problems that need to be addressed and provide data-driven insights to support the changes. Involving key influencers and skeptics within the company will help generate broad support and acceptance. 

 

  1. Develop leaders: Recognize that being good at a current job does not guarantee success in a managerial role. Going from an individual contributor to a manager requires a significant shift in skills and mindset. Invest in coaching and developing employees during this transition to prevent the emergence of ineffective managers. Set clear standards and provide training to equip managers with the fundamental skills necessary for their new role. 

 

  1. Value and reward the right habits: Merely training leaders is not enough; it is important to ensure that the learned skills are put into practice. Measure and reward leaders based on their ability to grow their team, provide coaching and feedback, conduct regular one-on-one meetings, and focus on the right priorities. Implement surveys, such as the Google Upward Feedback survey, to gather feedback and encourage accountability. Lead by example and demonstrate the desired habits through your own actions as a leader. 

 

  1. Set the right example: Your actions as a leader speak louder than words. Examine your own leadership habits and ensure they align with the desired qualities in your organization. What you measure, recognize, and reward sets the tone for what is considered important. Invest in your own development as a leader and promote a culture that values and supports effective leadership. 

 

 

By focusing on developing capable leaders, involving skeptics in the decision-making process, and cultivating a culture that rewards the right behaviors, flat organizations can navigate challenges and foster an environment of respect and success. (Evanish n.d) 

 

Conclusion 

Scaling an organization is a challenging task regardless of the chosen approach. However, introducing the uncertainty and hidden complexities of a flat organizational structure further exacerbates the difficulty. 

Although implementing an innovative flat management structure may be tempting, it is important not to be blind by its appeal. Instead, it is more efficient to invest efforts in building the best possible conventional organization. 

As demonstrated by the experiences of the companies and leaders discussed, a flat organizational structure often proves unsuccessful, ultimately necessitating a transition to a different model. Rather than encountering the setbacks and challenges associated with a failed flat structure, it is advisable to proactively establish a well-designed and effective conventional organization right from the start. 

By taking this approach, you can gain a head start in the right direction and allocate your resources wisely, avoiding the inevitable need for a subsequent organizational shift.

 

 

 

References 

 

Evanish. J. n.d. Nails In The Coffin: Why A Flat Organizational Structure Fails. Read on 20.6.2023 

 

https://getlighthouse.com/blog/flat-organizational-structure-fails/ 

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