How to establish flat hierarchies without sacrificing formal order
Guest Blog By Bas Kohnke, Impraise
Flat hierarchies is a new organizational trend in today’s corporate world. As opposed to traditional, “mechanic” organizational structures where the team hierarchies are formed based on product category, target market and even a pure order of power, a company with a flat organizational structure has little or no management layers. Team members are engaged throughout every decision-making process and are encouraged to contribute their expertise equally with their colleagues.
Naturally, flat or organic structures have their pros and cons. Human resource management experts tend to be quite skeptical about it – The Guardian’s Andre Spicer even referred to this utopic organizational idea as “a beautiful facade” that leads to more dysfunctionality within the company. This may be true for companies that implement flat structure incorrectly, but it is possible to do it right and lead your company to success.
Both models have their pros and cons. For example, flat hierarchies have been criticized for creating a hiatus in the organizational structure and culture of the company, while the more traditional top-down models can lead to high levels of inefficiency awaiting for approval and confirmations on any decision, and lack of engagement from lower-level employees. On the other hand, their structure helps maintain strong organization, clear positions of leadership and stability, while flat hierarchies promote equality, comfort and open communication among teams.
When introduced well, a flat hierarchy can give teams the opportunities for higher efficiency, stronger collaborations and happier, more loyal personnel overall. So how can a company introduce a model that’s the complete opposite of its established top down hierarchy without sacrificing formal order and functionality? Here are some ideas to get started.
1. Enable communication and psychological safety as a company culture. By encouraging open discussions and team bonding, you will establish trust and transparency among team members. This will ensure a more successful shift to a flat hierarchy model.
2. Encourage feedback between team members. Set up a system where feedback is regular, honest and holistic. This will help bring out the teams’ strengths and growth opportunities by analyzing the feedback your receive.
3. Focus on the mission. A unified vision will promote employees to work towards the same goal, which is one of the strongest characteristics in a collaborative flat hierarchy.
4. Empower people, let everyone act on a decision and feel free to propose new solutions. Motivate employees to engage in decision making processes and encourage equality among team members.
When considering a flat hierarchical model, the question that arises is: what kind of leadership is needed for a successful organization with an organic structure? A company that does it well is Skyscanner – a UK-based web service for finding flights, hotels and car rentals. Despite its enormous size (more than 1’000 employees globally), it runs on a hybrid of a flat and top-down hierarchy model. The key to success for such model is constant communication and dynamic feedback, strong, trustful relationships among employees and a pleasant work environment where teams enjoy spending their days.
Introducing a new organizational structure is a big deal and can require a long adjustment period for everyone involved. To avoid meaningless stress, it’s important to build and then follow a strong change management strategy to implement your new flat hierarchy. Change management involves many components that need serious thought, such as how to communicate the upcoming changes to the teams, how to manage these changes in a thoughtful and strategic way and how to deal with resistance when (and not if) it comes up.
Finally, if you are considering implementing a flat hierarchy in your company, remember to take it slow and guide it with strategy. It may be challenging to shift the culture from a structured system to a “free reign” – and it definitely doesn’t happen overnight. However, it is possible to achieve the kind of company structure and culture you want with strategic leadership team and a set of supporting tools.