As more organizations are becoming flatter, the looming question is whether it’s possible to “do more with less” or whether it’s necessary to rethink the distribution of power and control as described by Peter Drucker, Peter Block and Gary Hamel among others.
Emergent Leadership Topples the Pyramid shows what a non-hierarchical view of leadership looks like. But these four practices are needed in order to self-organize successfully and prevent spiraling into chaos.
These practices provide the vehicle to move forward, and without them, your flat organization will end up with flat tires.
1. A Shared View of the Big Picture.
Agreement on the organization’s purpose (reason for being), values (what guides people’s behavior and decisions), vision (what it looks like in action), and strategy (how they will move forward).
When everyone understands and supports the big picture, the shared vision becomes the “boss,” providing the needed guidance. Because people trust they share the same vision, they give each other latitude to accomplish goals independently. There is more room for creativity and greater appreciation for each other’s unique contributions. There is actually more conflict (which is a good thing) because it is in the form of creative disagreement, where people argue about ideas to find the best solution, without fear of it leading to personality conflicts.
Without a shared vision, there will be redundancy of work, duplication of efforts, wasted efforts on work that does not advance the mission, and personality conflicts.
However, as powerful as it is, a shared vision alone is not enough to ensure emergent leadership will be successful. Three more practices are essential.
2. Adequate Resources.
The needed resources (time, money and individuals with the critical skills) must be available.
Time. “Time is the scarcest resource and unless it is managed nothing else can be managed,” according to Peter Drucker. The scope of the work and timeframes need to be reasonable so people don’t get burned out.
Money. The team needs to understand the available financial support so they can plan the work to fit within the budget. If there is not adequate funding, then they either need to obtain it or rethink their strategy and goals.
Skills. There need to be enough of the right people on the team that possess the skills needed to complete the work. If an important skill set is missing, the team will not be able to complete their work.
3. Relevant information.
People cannot make smart decisions without relevant information.
Each person needs to know what information they need to do their job. There needs to be easy access to information on internal resources and capabilities, other projects, and customer and industry trends so they can coordinate efforts and make good decisions.
For example, if someone wants to spend money, they need to understand the budget and how their expenditure fits so they can make an intelligent decision that doesn’t endanger the financial stability of the organization. Or if they want to initiate an action that affects a customer, they need to know who else is working with that customer and what they are doing.
Also, each person needs to be clear about what information they need to share with others, and good processes for communication need to be in place.
4. Clarity on Decision-Making.
A clear decision-making process needs to be in place so people know which decisions they can make on their own and which they need to bring to the team.
If all decisions are made by consensus, the team will be bogged down. Most decisions need to be made by those who are directly involved in an activity. The 5 Steps of CRISP Decision-Making explains how a “decision steward” can shepherd decisions in a flat environment.
However, some big picture decisions (e.g. strategy and budget) need to be made at the team level, not the individual level, as they affect the big picture.
Without clarity on which decisions are made at the whole team level, individuals are in danger of making isolated decisions that negatively affect others without realizing it.
Structure Instead of Hierarchy
These four practices create a structure that replaces the traditional “boss” whose job is to oversee people who report to them.
In successful flat organizations, leadership naturally emerges as needed, provided by those who are most intimately involved with the situation and who are best equipped to address it. When there is a problem, it is quickly identified, and those involved take action to fix it. And if someone consistently drops the ball, teammates deal directly with that person because they are the ones who are affected.