Skip to content

Flat organizations: workable structure or wishful thinking?

[Written for LinkedIn]

At first glance, the flat organization structure feels like the pinnacle of corporate nirvana — the tearing down of red tape and bureaucracy so that ideas can flow without constraint, the complete freedom to pursue your own project from start to finish, and, of course, the increased likelihood of a spontaneous workplace unity circle — liberated employees standing hand in hand, basking in their newfound corporate equality (and likely singing Kumbaya).

And yet — unity circles aside — is it actually feasible to eliminate all (or most) organizational structure from your business? Can you really axe managerial positions while continuing to grow? The answer, unsurprisingly, is difficult to pinpoint as a universal “yes” or “no,” and varies heavily based on organization size and goals. Below, I detail a few of the pros and cons of a strictly flat organization, and how to cherry-pick a few of the more beneficial aspects and apply them to your own business structure:

First, the good stuff:

The idea behind a flat organization structure is fairly intuitive — when knowledgeable, well-trained employees are given an active role in their company’s decision-making process, then odds are they’ll be far more productive and invested than they would be if supervised by layers and layers of middle management. When employees are invested, this can reduce attrition and turnover, and ultimately save your company money. And, of course, eliminating salaries of potential middle managers will cut costs as well.

So, in many ways, this approach seems to work. Limiting the amount of supervisory layers between bottom-level employees and executives or top-level managers can often empower employees, increase autonomy, cut down on decision-making time, and improve communication throughout your organization.

And, the not-so-good:

Though certainly not without its benefits, the flat organizational structure is also not the cure-all for your communication, pipeline, and employee buy-in woes.

While an intentional lack of hierarchical structure can help small businesses make fast decisions and get off the ground, the more your business grows the harder this is to maintain. As your company scales up, the few people you have left in managerial or leadership positions will eventually become overburdened when the manager-employee ratio skews too far.

Accountability can also be elusive in flat organizations. When employees lack a specific boss to report to, this can create confusion and potential power struggles, and ultimately shield decision-makers from being held accountable.

Possibly the most prevalent flaw of the flat organizational structure is that in most cases an innate, informal hierarchy will probably still preside over your company, regardless of your flattening efforts. This critique is not new — and can be dated back to Jo Freeman’s 1972 essay The Tyranny of the Structurelessness, in which she claims that “there is no such thing as a structureless group,” and that “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, while your company likely bears limited similarities to the 1960’s feminist counter-culture organizations Jo Freeman describes, it’s still safe to say that, despite your best efforts, an implicit structure and hierarchy will prevail in feminist liberation groups and corporations alike.

How to make it work for you:

There are certain elements of the flat organization that, when applied correctly, can give you some of the benefits without the headache. Here are a few:

  • Empower those on the front line: In empowering your “front line” employees, you shift the focus even closer to your customers by giving decision-making power to the people who typically interact with customers every day. Nail down a few specific scenarios in which front line employees can make decisions and solve customer problems without having to consult higher management, and you’ll be able to deliver quicker results to customers in need. Chances are, the people who spend their day-to-day directly interacting with customers have a greater understanding of specific customer needs and wants, and are thus better equipped to make decisions here anyway.
  • Don’t make decisions in a silo: Flat organizations require team-based problem solving, instead of relying solely on execs to address challenges and solve problems. And, while some decisions can’t (and shouldn’t) involve the whole team, there are certain problem-solving cases that would greatly benefit from input from many perspectives. Garnering feedback from your team — when possible — enables buy-in, helps employees feel valued, and allows organizational changes to be made a little easier when people feel they’ve had a say in the decision.
  • Foster a culture of expertise: When you remove managers from the equation, decision-making is often delegated to the employee with the most relevant expertise, depending on the decision at hand. But you don’t need a wholly flat organization to maintain part of this. Ostensibly, you employ a wide variety of people with genuine expertise in different areas — some of which you or your managers don’t have particular expertise in. So if “Gary in marketing” wrote a book on social media strategy and you can’t even spell “Hootsuite,” then find ways to defer to him when social media decisions crop up.

Ultimately…

The saying goes that “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those others that have been tried,” and at the end of the day the same might be true for the traditional hierarchical organization structure. Though obviously not perfect, the shortcomings of a more traditional hierarchical structure might be the easiest to bear, especially if you plan on scaling up in the future. Take notes on the way flat organizations do certain things better, but don’t feel old-fashioned if ultimately this structure isn’t for you.