Why No One Can Make Flat Organizations Work & Why Hierarchies Should Rule In A Post-Covid World

By Steve Andriole, Contributor
Hierarchies! getty

We’re always searching for new ways to “manage.”  Why, I don’t really know.  All structures are flawed, so, as the argument goes, pick one and live with it.  But the pandemic work-at-home challenge has strained even the most (relatively) effective organizations.  No one really knows what everyone actually does all day or where they’re doing it.  No one knows who’s listening and no one knows how to evaluate remote performance.  Especially vulnerable are companies whose ways of working are verbal, not based on actual documentation.  You know, the companies that don’t always document what they’re doing, who’s doing what and what the performance metrics should be, versus companies that are crystal clear in what they expect specific people to do when, how and with what evidence.  The “let’s not write everything down” companies have an especially tough time conducting annual performance reviews, which themselves are done from the mountains, the beaches or someone’s basement office. You know what I mean.  Some companies are not just flat in structure, they’re also flat in documentation.  Decision-making audit trails – “who agreed to this?” – are thin at best, versus companies who would pass post decision-making audits with exquisite detail around responsibility and accountability.  

RACIs to the Rescue

Some companies rely upon RACI charting to help clarify all this.  RACI charting, which requires companies to clarify project and larger programmatic roles.  There are lots of definitions of RACI charts.  Here’s one that’s clear:

“A RACI chart … is a diagram that identifies the key roles and responsibilities of users against major tasks within a project.  RACI charts serve as a visual representation of the functional role played by each person on a project team.  Creating these charts is also an excellent exercise in balancing workload and establishing the decision-maker.

“Gartner states, ‘Many important organizational initiatives begin without agreeing on decision authority.  This oversight often becomes a painful discovery process – causing unneeded anxiety and frustration.’  Kicking off a project effort by creating a RACI diagram is one of the best possible ways to eliminate this painful discovery process.”

“RACI” of course refers to responsible, accountable, consultative and information status, that is, who’s responsible versus who’s just informed.  But how many companies do you really know that are fully committed to RACI charting?  

Alternative Organization Structures

Two general organizational philosophies exist:  mechanistic and organic.  You guessed it:  mechanistic is the more structured, predictable one.  Organic structures are the ones you’re more likely to find in start-ups:   

“Mechanistic structures … are known for having narrow spans of control, as well as high centralization, specialization, and formalization … as daunting and inflexible as mechanistic structure sounds, the chain of command, whether long or short, is always clear under this model.  As a company grows, it needs to make sure everyone (and every team) knows what's expected of them.

“Organic structures (also known as "flat" structures) are known for their wide spans of control, decentralization, low specialization, and loose departmentalization … this model might have multiple teams answering to one person and taking on projects based on their importance and what the team is capable of — rather than what the team is designed to do … this organizational structure is much less formal than mechanistic, and takes a bit of an ad-hoc approach to business needs.  This can sometimes make the chain of command, whether long or short, difficult to decipher. And as a result, leaders might give certain projects the green light more quickly but cause confusion in a project's division of labor.”

Each one of these philosophies has variants but the implications are clear.  Structured versus unstructured.  Top down versus bottom-up – and across.  Hierarchy versus flat.

Structure Meets Covid

Covid opened the door for alternative ways of working.  Employees discovered the everyday life-work balance remote work provides.  Many don’t want to return to the commuting grind. They crave flexibility.  Due to childcare and leaves-of-absence policies, the US is a green field for new ways of working.  Covid gave them a (tiny) de facto taste of life in Norway and other countries that have more personal work/leave policies.  Americans like what they tasted.  Some companies like it too.  It’s cheaper than renting all that space, right?  Gig workers may be the answer versus hiring all those benefit-heavy employees.  If healthcare was universal in the US, we’d see huge shifts in our ways of working.  

So what does all this have to do with organizational structures?  Everything.  If present trends continue, the fog of remote performance and accountability will increase.  In academia, for example, Zoom – and more general trends toward online education – has transformed “work.”  Professors teaching only in on-line degree programs are based everywhere but in their academic headquarters.  I know professors who have never been to their campuses.  I know administrators who don’t even know – or care – where their professors live.  Can this be true for sales and marketing professionals?  No – unless they’re managed hierarchically.  Unlike professors, whose performance and accountability swirl around specific, measurable teaching performance metrics (and whose “management” has always been remotely managed), corporate professionals need specific performance metrics measured against a set of changing requirements that must be defined and closely tracked by managers – and the only way to do this is through mechanistic organizational structures.  Put a little differently, do you want your sales, marketing, finance and HR professionals defining and prioritizing their work without specific direction?  

I realize all this is controversial.  These days it’s popular to empower and entrust everyone to do the right corporate things.  Flat is good.  Network structures are good.  Teams work well together when management just leaves them alone.  Really?  As remote work trends expand, companies should contract their management structures.  As old school as it sounds, there’s gold in popping into an office to check on a project.  Assuming offices are virtual, which for a lot of reasons they should be, “checking” needs structure.  Checking hates ambiguity.  Checking needs evidence.  In the old days, we could “see” the evidence face-to-face, but with new work protocols, “seeing” takes on different forms, which is fine so long as there’s no confusion about who gets to look and what they’re expected to see.

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