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.
What I especially appreciate about these practices is they can help your team get out of the “blame game.” Thanks for such a clear explanation and description.
Thank Jerilyn, Excellent point about the “blame game” – these practices provide the support to move forward and when they are not aligned, people end up working at cross-purposes, and not seeing the bigger picture, end up blaming each other.
All excellent points. My personal favorites based on years of being a team player are in #1 – Shared vision – and Sharing (objectives,tasks, ideas, opportunities) transparently eliminates issues rising from the abyss and covertly destroy a project.
#4 – Clarity of the decision involves the whole team. I also like “When everyone is responsible, nobody is responsible.” Responsibilities must be shared but responsibility must be assigned.
I agree that #1 is the lynch pin. Without clarity on where you’re going and how you intend to get there, the rest of the practices support you in going nowhere. Love this – “when everyone is responsible, nobody is responsible.” That’s why the role of “decision steward” is so important. Thanks for adding to the conversation, Jane.
Jesse, thanks so much for this post. This seems so relevant and useful in today’s organizations. We need to be updating how we deal with things in organizations–continually “down loading” new ways to look at things. Thanks again
Thanks, Barbara. What’s ironic is that these new ways of looking at things have actually been articulated by many over the years. I think the time has finally come that we can (and need to) apply them. You might enjoy my post The 8 Skills Essential for Success in the Future which discusses why that time is now.
Good stuff, Jesse. Sharing with my team. There are a few areas we need to pay attention to.
Glad to hear that, Charles. I hope it sparks a team discussion – it’s so helpful to step back and look at the team as a whole and what is needed to support accomplishing your mission (and, if there isn’t clarity and agreement on where you’re going, that’s the place to start).
First, thank for your post
Today organizations should be flat enough so information can flow smoothly to enable teams to take the right decision on right time.
Excellent point about flow of information. This is one of the greatest weaknesses of hierarchies and is why the term “ivory tower” was coined to describe the isolation of the leaders at the top of the hierarchy.
Structure provides support and eliminates the need for hierarchy. A lot of people confuse these two. But this structure stems from agreements people make, instead of being handed down from on high.
Thanks for pointing out that structure doesn’t always replace hierarchy. When it’s “handed down from on high” it is an agent of hierarchy. But when it comes from agreements among people, it is an agent of collaboration. Much thanks for adding to the conversation, Jan.
A great framework for creating successful ‘flat’ organization! I always appreciate your ability to weave the theoretical with the practical, Jesse!
Thanks, Sharon. That’s my goal – to provide a practical framework for addressing real issues. I am currently working with an organization that is struggling with these issues right now and hope this will be helpful for them.
Spot on, as always. May I add that for an organization to be resilient and sustainable, leadership better NOT be held by a privileged few. The old sports metaphor of football is now gone. Think soccer: when the ball comes your way, you take it and run with it. Since everyone knows the goal, the “ball” keeps moving. Thanks,Jesse.
Thanks for the soccer metaphor, Eileen. Love it!
Wow, this article is pure gold. Thanks for addressing this topic so well, Jesse.
I’ve only ever seen these points discussed in fragmented, individual pieces; you’ve done a great job of demonstrating how all four are interconnected and collectively contribute to the success of flat organizations.
These practices are truly the foundational cornerstones on which organizations grow. Unfortunately, most businesses are too enamored by the latest technology, systems, and tools that they overlook the fundamentals altogether!
It’s like neglecting the leaky roof in favor of upgrading a bathroom. Fixing the roof isn’t nearly as sexy as a bath remodel, but that boring, leaky roof will ruin the whole home unless it’s repaired!
So what would the process look like for organizations that need to shift their focus back to these four practices? I read your article on CRISP decision-making, so that one is covered. As for the others:
– How do you create a culture that considers the overall vision with every decision and action?
– How do you determine what is “adequate” for time, money, and talent?
– How do you inspire (and maybe even incentivize) employees to prioritize information-sharing?
Perhaps you could write follow-up articles to give direction in these areas as well? I’d love to know your thoughts!
Also, would you say these same practices also apply to hierarchical organizations?
So glad you found this helpful, Jason. Love your analogy of ignoring the leaky roof in favor of upgrading the bathroom. I find that often the bias for action is so strong that taking the time to get clarity and agreement on these practices feels like it’s slowing things down. The truth is: sometimes going slow in the beginning allows you to go faster later. Which reminds me of a post I wrote that you might enjoy: Mother Goose Management.
Thanks also for your request to say more about your excellent questions. There is indeed more to say, and I will address them in a future post.
Yes, these same practices are important in hierarchical organizations. But hierarchical organizations can limp along without doing them well because a good “leader” will fill in the gaps. However, they are the “glue” for self-organizing systems and without them, things will spin into chaos.
I very much like your approach that organization is more important than hierarchy. Too often, people see hierarchies as the opposite of anarchy. Are you familiar with Harold Jarche and Jon Husband who have written widely in this field? One question though: in a non hierarchical organization – who bears the responsibility when things go wrong?
Great question, Tarik. Before I can answer, I need to understand what you mean by “bears the responsibility?” If you mean who is held responsible, or in other words, “blamed,” you considering this from a hierarchical perspective. Mixing perspectives doesn’t make sense. From a non-hierarchical perspective, the issue is, “who is responsible to ensure that things go right,” and in that case, the answer is, the people who are doing the work.
Great answer Jess! I did mean who is responsible for ensuring things go right. Thanks for the clarification.