Over the past few weeks I’ve been writing about various types of organizational structures that either already exist in today’s business landscape or are starting to emerge as viable options for the future of work. I explore each of these structures and concepts in my book The Future of Work: Attract New Talent, Build Better Leaders, and Create a Competitive Organization. However, I’ve been going through each one of these in detail and you can see the 5 part series with links below:
- The traditional hierarchy (click to read)
- Flatter organizations (click to read)
- Flat organizations (click to read)
- Flatarchies (click to read)
- Holacratic organizations (click to read)
Here’s a brief overview of the five types of structures as well as a handy visual the shows you the actual structures of each.
There are many challenges with this model but to name a few. Communication typically flows from the top to the bottom which means innovation stagnates, engagement suffers, and collaboration is virtually non-existent. This type of environment is riddled with bureaucracy and is extremely sluggish. This is why the hierarchy is perhaps the biggest vulnerability for any organization still employing it. It opens up the doors for competitors and new incumbents to quickly take over. There is also no focus on the employee experience in this type of a structure and as organizations around the world are exploring alternative organizational models, those still stuck with the hierarchy are going to have one heck of a time trying to attract and retain top talent. This is the model I firmly believe is on its way out of the world of work and will be replaced by one of the models below.
Unlike the traditional hierarchy which typically sees one way communication and everyone at the top with all the information and power; a “flatter” structure seeks to open up the lines of communication and collaboration while removing layers within the organization. As you can see there are fewer layers and that arrows point both ways. Obviously a very simplified way to look at this type of a company but hopefully it gets the point across. For larger organizations this is the most practical, scalable, and logical approach to deploy across an entire company. This is the model that most large (and many mid-size) organizations around the world are moving towards. It’s true, some form of hierarchy still does exist within this model but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing in this case. In flatter companies there is still a strong focus on communication and collaboration, improving the employee experience, challenging the status quo around traditional management models, and the like. But instead of completely reinventing the entire company and introducing a radical new structure and approach to work, it achieves similar results in far shorter term and with much less effort and resource allocation.
Unlike any other corporate structure that exists, flat companies are exactly that…flat. Meaning there are usually no job titles, seniority, managers, or executives. Everyone is seen as equal. Flat organizations are also oftentimes called or referred to as self-managed organizations (there can be some differences but for our case we will put them together). The most famous example of this comes from Valve, the gaming company responsible for classics such as Half-Life, Counter-Strike, Portal, and many others. At Valve there are no job titles and nobody tells you what to work on. Instead all the employees at Valve can see what projects are being worked on and can join whichever project they want. If an employee wants to start their own project then they are responsible for securing funding and building their team. For some this sounds like a dream for others, their worst nightmare. I don’t see this as something that is practical or scalable for larger organizations when we think about the future of work. Smaller and some medium size companies might be able to operate in this type of an environment but when you get to organizations with thousands of employees then it becomes challenging.
Somewhere in between hierarchies and flat organizations lie flatarchies. These types of companies are a little bit of both structures. They can be more hierarchical and then have ad-hoc teams for flat structures or they can have flat structures and form ad-hoc teams that are more structured in nature. Organizations with this type of structure are very dynamic in nature and can be thought of a bit more like an amoeba without a constant structure. This type of a structure can work within any type of company large or small. However a flatarchy is to be thought of as a more temporary structure which creates isolated pockets of new structures when needed, such as in the case of developing a new product or service. This is starting to become more common as organizations around the world invest more time and money into creating innovation programs that look beyond a set R&D department. It’s not hard to imagine having a permanent structure as a “flatter organization” which then gives employees the opportunity to create special teams when needed. This model is quite powerful yet also more disruptive than the other structures explored. The main benefit here is the focus on innovation which is quite a strong competitive advantage in the future of work.
One of the things I’ve always said about holacracy is that I believe there are ways to achieve some of the desired effects without having to go through such a radical change. It’s sort of like trying to improve the way your car runs by taking out the entire engine and rebuilding it instead of working on some of the core areas that might really drive performance. Sometimes ripping out the engine and starting from scratch isn’t always as an option, especially as the car is moving, like most organizations always are. My opinion is that holacracy can be more viable for smaller or medium size organizations or perhaps larger organizations that have started off with holacracy as their base operating model. However, it’s very hard for me to imagine a large organization with tens or hundreds of thousands of employees around the world implementing something like this. Holacracy is still very much an emerging structure with a lot of inserting concepts but we still need more case studies and examples over a longer period of time. Zappos will perhaps give us the best look at what a transformation to holacracy can look like, but I suspect we will need to wait another 2 years to really get a sense of the impact
Jacob Morgan is a keynote speaker, author (most recently of The Future of Work), and futurist. To have Jacob speak at your event, to get access to his videos, podcasts and articles, or to subscribe to his newsletter you can visit TheFutureOrganization.