Flat organization? Run away, it’s likely a trap

When I started to work as an intern in a software company, I really didn’t like the managers too much, they were bossy, authoritary, and many times, not really efficient, since their decissions looked to me like weird, or even dumb. But I got used to it, I had a long and hard road ahead of me, so why to stress about something totally outside of my scope? So I did focus on learning how to do my job as best as possible.

As time passed, I understood a bit better why this kind of not-totally-sensible decissions are taken, when you take a look to the structure of a company, there’s many more interests than your daily work and what’s good just for you and your team, there’s many more points of view than yours, and probably many more highly trained people involved in those decissions. So in some sense, you begin to understand that you know nothing, or at least, too little. You feel like you have a lack of information and the information is not shared with you, but, why the information is not shared with you?

So you start to think that the problem is the organisational structure, the typical pyramid structure where you, usually, are not in the most relevant position, and it’s exactly here, when you begin to think that the “flat organization” concept sounds really nice. A place where you will talk with your colleages as equals, and your voice can be taken into account for more important decissions. Cool, right?

With the years, I changed jobs, and also country, and I landed in a place with, apparently, way more open mind about work culture than my home country, and with what I was looking forward for a long time, flat organizations. And this is what I found out after working for some “flat organizations”.

First thing I felt is that the number of meetings that I had increased dramatically, I was not only on technical meetings, discussing about how to implement a product with other engineers, I was also in meetings where people was discussing about the future of the project and products, meetings to discuss ways of working, and countless “alignment” meetings… And I was happy, because it’s what I wanted, but I saw the downside quickly…

Flat organizations, are usually linked to the “open communication” concept. This concept is usually confused with sending invitations for any meeting to a massive amount of users without taking into account the nature of their work, if they are subject matter experts or not… With many more people invited to meetings, this ones can easily become a hell, with people giving useless feedback just to “shine”, or just to not look like they are not participating (my case sometimes), making the decission making very complicated. Eventually managers dont want to drastically end with this discussions because they claimed to be open and flat, and become prisoners of their own “culture”.

But here comes a shadier part of the “open communication” concept, this is often used because managers and directors, many times, have no clue on what to do, where to go, or what should be the approach to solve a problem, so they, literally, open the communication with almost everyone, to see if some bright mind solve their problems, and honestly, I can understand them, but then the salaries should be as the company, flat, if we all solve all the problems, then salaries should be equal.

There’s even a more serious issue I found on flat organizations. In a place where’s theres no hard management, where proactivity is the motto, and where we all are just working to make a company successful towards the same goals, the roles and responsibilities can become very blurry, and many managers can take advantage on this. If there’s no clear responsibility on duties, tasks, decissions…, a dishonest manager can use this against you to tell you that “that or the other” was your responsibility, and believe me, when the shit happens, you can find yourself, suddenly, being in charge of something you just didn’t expected, and worse, be blamed about it for not considering it. When responsibilities are not set or are not clear, literally, everything can be your task, and this is a huge advantage for poor managers, that will use their hierarchy (now yes, hierarchy does exist), when the shit hits the fan, and make you accountable for that.

So, eventually, with flat organizations you can find yourself in a very dangerous playground, where the open communication makes everybody give (uninformed) opinions, where the decissions are made to make everybody happy, so they think they are participating, and eventually, being responsible for the poor outcome of the mess created by the bad organization of the company.

And no, I don’t believe in silos, or in hiding information from my colleages, or act independenly on everything. I believe in a minimun set of rules and hierarchy, where you have clear obligations and responsibilities, and the flexibility enough to get the extra mile if you feel like that, and I also believe in the communication done through the right channels in the right ways, with the right people, no more no less, not just everybody giving an opinion in a crazy meeting room. Balance and common sense should lead the organization of a company, not just a concept because it looks cool or sounds good. If you see something similar as I described above, run, it’s a trap.

Engineer, agilist and product manager