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On Heads, Trees, Cells and Brains - or: Why Flat Hierarchies Work

Posted by rah003 on July 27, 2014 at 11:33 PM PDT

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Today's business world is anything but peaceful. Instead, it is a rather cut-throat environment that doesn’t forgive anything and is certainly not too friendly towards solo players trying to achieve great goals.
You either grow or you die... Or get eaten by someone with enough cash and interest in the niche you found for yourself. This roughly is the current business environment. Its motto is “achieve more with less”. This race for efficiency often takes its toll, and it’s neither the stakeholders nor the investors who pay the price - it’s staff.

Motivated employees who do their best to move the business forward and often invest more time than they’re paid for can only take so much before emotions start to shift. Research [1] suggests that more than half of employees hate their job: they wake up every morning, dreading what will come at them during their day. Fatigue or stress, of course, can easily lead to worse, pathological, symptoms.

In order to still achieve their goals, and to increase efficiency, companies therefore tend to turn to one of the following solutions: they either create an efficiency department, or they recognize that people are stressed, so they try to actually take care of employee happiness and invest into keeping them happy (and balanced).

Unfortunately, often, when neither of the above works, it’s time to look at the problem in depth and analyze what is it that prevents companies from achieving higher levels of efficiency. If you do so, you’ll find that part of the problem is multiple levels of hierarchies. Information traversing those hierarchies gets lost or twisted heavily - whether it is on its way up or down. A nice anecdotical example of such a twist can even be found in movies for kids [2].

The result of recognizing traditional hierarchy as a problem is finding another approach - most often these days, it is flat hierarchy, where companies position themselves as a community of independent, but well-collaborating teams.

The anatomy of an analogy

Before I go into the benefits of this approach, let’s have a look at how to visually represent different kinds of hierarchies. While in the past we described management levels by using body part metaphors (controlled by the head, with arms and legs executing), flat hierarchies are better described by turning to cells. We describe such organizations as cell colonies working together, each providing some special function or output needed by others to perform their assigned task.

Top-down versus flat

The main difference between traditional top down hierarchies and flat hierarchies is that the latter removes communication barriers. While building hierarchies over centuries has helped us nail down a chain of command, hold people accountable and and keep organizations moving, traditional hierarchy in today’s organizations threatens the communication flow to the point of throwing businesses off balance. This is largely due to the fact that information travels incredibly fast, making each human checkpoint you can eliminate a competitive advantage you gain.

A bag of beans

At its core, our attempt to flatten hierarchy is a strategy to make communication more efficient - to establish new flows of information, to make a company grow more organically, naturally. This also makes it easier for a company structure to adapt to changes. A rigid tree like structure is good at withstanding the outside pressure without any or with very little of elasticity, all the way to the breaking point. Then it collapses. Companies tend to be like that too. The bigger they get, the more rigid they become. That is one big danger for startups maturing into something bigger. Companies that adopt flattened hierarchies have a better chance at not breaking: think of it as something similar to a bag of beans - it is big, full of small equal parts. You can kick it or sit on it or move it around, but it will not break, it will merely easily rearrange its contents.

Brainy connections

However, this bag of bean doesn’t eliminate the need for efficient communication, as another biological example illustrates. Whales, elephants and dolphins have more brain matter than we do - so it can’t be the simple size of the brain mass that makes us relatively advanced beings. It's the synapses between brain cells - those little connections that allow cells to communicate with each other. If you doubt that cell connections are the key to success, look at post surgery reports of patients with split-brain condition. This is a result of treatment in which synapses between their hemispheres were cut to stop seizures. Those people didn't lose any of their abilities, they know how to talk, they still recognize all objects around them, but since the connection between objects and their names were cut, they have to relearn how to call what thing. [3],[4],[5]

Similarly, it's the connected individuals that make the difference in flat hierarchies. It can work only as long as individuals in smaller cells or groups keep talking to each other. The communication between individuals is what’s needed in the success of a flattened company structure. Any clandestine operations will kill all benefits of it.

So if your company made the move and flattened its hierarchy, take the chance and make the change from being a head or arm to becoming a cell. Build connections, communicate well with other cell members to understand their goals and problems. Life in the bean bag is more fun than being a rigid tree branch!

[3] Funnell, M. G., Colvin, M. K., & Gazzaniga, M. S. (2007). The calculating hemispheres: Studies of a split-brain patient. Neuropsychologia, 45(10), 2378-2386.
[4] Gazzaniga MS, Holtzman JD, Deck MD, Lee BC. MRI assessment of human callosal surgery with neuropsychological correlates. Neurology 1985; 35:1763-66.
[5] Eldridge, A. D. (n.d.). Discovering the unique individuals behind split-brain patient anonymity (Doctoral dissertation, University of North Carolina at Wilmington, Wilmington, NC)