Organizational Models


A very smart friend recently sent me a NPR article talking about how bossless offices could be the future. This article continues the conversation about how the flat organizational model is gaining momentum in the tech and nonprofit worlds. The theory is that if the org is completely flat, then no one individual holds the power. The group holds the power.

However, I found myself agreeing with the person who said making group decisions about everything (salaries, strategic visions, implementations, etc) was a little like high school. Which, maybe I’m remembering high school differently than you, but to my recollection, it was ALL about the one person who held the power: the person at the head of the school, the person at the head of the clique.  And isn’t that what this flat org trend is trying to help overcome: the person with the corner office who makes deals with another sr. staffer and/or funder that decides the fate of the “little” people?

Lately, it seems we’re weirder about having conversations around power.  Power’s not a dirty word. It’s defined as something that helps pinpoint who holds the ability to influence behavior or actions. And even though our different generations have different concepts of what power is in an organization, org models are supposed to help aid us in determining chain of command. This means making a choice about power.  Which even though that makes some folks uncomfortable, it is a necessary process of business. Even flat orgs have an ultimate leader who likely has to answer to someone, whether an investor, a board, or a community they work with. As President Eisenhower said, the buck has to stop here or somewhere where an individual is accountable.

As Wikipedia points out, the flat model can also be tough to scale.  My own organization is an example of this. For years, the team had 4 staffers, all with similar titles. Then in a period of 18 months, we grew to a staff of 12. Suddenly, there were managers, directors, coordinators, and cross-functional teams. And yet, the model we still use is horizontal. The conversation that is sometimes heard around our office is that it’s strategy v. tactics roles, and that it doesn’t have any real meaning on who’s more important. We have specific task analyses, which places us in the model to recognize the roles and lateral love we should be experiencing. But, because we have different titles, there’s a perception that folks who do “strategy” are more important than those who do “tactics”. Importance=power, right?  Well, not necessarily.

Looking at the definitions:

  • Strategy: a plan of action or policy designed to achieve a major or overall aim
  • Tactic: an action or strategy carefully planned to achieve a specific end

As far as functions go, you’ll see it states that neither the strategic nor tactical is more important. It’s also interesting to note that the words “strategy” and “plan” appear in each definition. It simply differentiates that those who that think and those that do. And further demonstrates that they’re two sides of the same coin.

In college, I read the Federalist Papers. One of the most famous is Paper #9, where Alexander Hamilton talks about the power of individual states v. the federal government. He argued that there had to be small AND large territories providing decision-making, because if they didn’t, even smaller dimensions (i.e. individuals) would split themselves into “an infinity of little, jealous, clashing, tumultuous commonwealths”. Confederated, not centralized.

To me, this paper demonstrates that by leaning towards these proposed “bossless” or “flat” offices, we’re encouraging centralization, which inevitably means, someone is not being heard. It also can encourage, during a particular important group decision that could impact one area of the organization over the other, the factions that create silos in the first place.

When you try to use an organization model without clearly articulating and recognizing those issues, it can be to the detriment of your organization. So it’s surprising to me that I continue to hear about both nonprofit and for profit environments trending towards completely flat organizations, and using the argument that it aids collaboration and helps flatten down silos that impede communication and community in an organizational culture.

Now, now…I don’t mean collaboration, communication, and community are bad. It just seems that context is another C that seemingly gets left out of this conversation. You can have all of those Cs even in a matrixed, hierarchal organization. It’s just in those types of organizations, you can usually determine where the decision making and often strategic folks sit. In a flat org, many times there might be titles but it doesn’t mean much, and you have job roles, but if you’re smaller, then those might not mean much either. So, how to figure out who is try working on strategy and tactics can be confusing, and it completely screws you for the rest of the Cs you’d hoped that having the flat model would help you overcome.

There’s a time and a place for a team and there’s a time and a place for an individual.  I’ll admit, flat organizations make me uncomfortable in the fact that you can’t as easily separate the whole from the individual, and that can make it much more difficult when leading projects, driving vision, or even make a decision about the type of coffee you serve in the office kitchen.

Now, granted in the nonprofit world, you wear a lot of hats. As the program director at my organization, on any given day, I could come up with multi-year professional development or research strategies that have long reaching impacts to fundraising, operations, information technology, and organizational direction. I could also put the dishes away for our kitchen, fold shirts for our swag closet, or write out technical instructions for a new internal training program. My task analysis says nothing about the tactical pieces I do day to day, but they need to be done because we’re not a very big staff. And sometimes, they’re done at the sacrifice of a strategic project I’m working on. But that’s the nature of the beast. I’ve also worked at nonprofits where the work is divided down so minutely that each person has a function, and your part contributes to the whole. You have a clear expectation of your reality, but you also have a clear ladder up if you feel you’ve outgrown that function.

Myself, I think that having clear expectations about how your staff can continue to meet and exceed both their personal career goals, as well as exceed the organizational mission, you have to have that ladder. Which mean flat doesn’t do the job as well. There’s no way for people to grow. What do you think?


2 thoughts on “Organizational Models

  1. I’m a fan of collaboration and informed decisions, and I’m a strong advocate for diverse input — executives that don’t seek input from line staff are inept at their jobs. But I’m no fan of management by consensus. Consensus usually means that every controversial decision is a compromise, even when the compromise isn’t the correct decision. Decision-making benefits from a representational structure with designated authority. To my mind, the best organizational structure is one that gives plenty of voice and influence to people that have relevant input on decisions, but also has clearly identified decision makers. A key skill for those decision makers is the solicitation and incorporation of input. They should have the authority to reject all of the input of staff over the informed advice of a consultant, when appropriate. Where companies fail, it’s either due to a crippling need for consensus (as opposed to informed decisions) or it’s due to decision makers who don’t know how to seek out and incorporate the thoughts of other stakeholders.

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