Flattening the Organization

Flattening the organization is not a new idea. There are many advantages for flattening an organization. Doing so helps to improve communications throughout, enhance flexibility in decision making, and better engage employees on the front line.

The challenge is that most organizations “Hard Wire” that in place by creating a new organizational structure where a bunch of people end up reporting to just one person. While this is well intentioned, the disadvantage of that is that it’s very difficult for one person to have so many direct reports–especially at the senior level where those direct reports all have unique and challenging responsibilities. It’s difficult to provide that kind of individual attention.

Perhaps it would have been better to focus more energy in “Soft Wiring” to create a more flattened organization. What would that look like? Here are some examples found in other organizations:

  1. At Disney, everyone refers to the other on a first name basis, as seen on their own name tags. In the parks, the philosophy is that “Everyone picks up trash.” It’s a little thing that suggests that, no matter how important your title may be, everyone must pitch in and help.
  2. Rather than taking off holidays, management at the U.S. National Park in St. Augustine now works alongside the front line workers on the busiest days of the year.
  3. At Starbucks, a new executive coming in from outside the organization must spend their first six months as a barista in their stores, so as to understand the customer firsthand.
  4. At Rackspace, managers sit alongside their employees in cubicles where they can be attentive to supporting employees in their needs. Corner offices are set aside for group meetings.
  5. In Nordstrom, store managers are expected to be away from their desk out on the floor with their employees from 11 am on, so as to be able to support the customer experience while training and developing their employees.
Decorated cubicles awaits all employees--including those who manage the operation at Rackspace. Photo by J. Jeff Kober.
Decorated cubicles awaits all employees–including those who manage the operation at Rackspace. Photo by J. Jeff Kober.

The examples above suggest very different ways of creating a flatter organization through Soft Wiring. Soft Wiring is more about influencing the culture more than it is about directing or controlling the organization. Opportunities for Soft Wiring abound, whether it involves improving communications, furthering collaboration, holding employees accountable, or enhancing the customer experience.

Most everyone believes in flattening the organization, but to better do so, would you be willing to work a front line position for six months to better understand your organization and customers? Starbucks believes its worth it. Photo by J. Jeff Kober
Most everyone believes in flattening the organization, but to better do so, would you be willing to work a front line position for six months to better understand your organization and customers? Starbucks believes its worth it. Photo by J. Jeff Kober

That’s not to say there isn’t a time and place for Hard Wiring. But rather than focusing on Hard Wiring alone, it may be well for the organization to spend more of its time focusing on better Soft Wiring. The advantages to Soft Wiring can often be far greater, as it

  • Often costs little or nothing to implement
  • Takes less time to put into motion
  • Furthers employee engagement
  • Reduces our dependency on bureaucratic Hard Wiring measures that are in place
  • Yields greater results over the long term
  • Builds and deepens trust

Next time you consider flattening the organization, consider how you might best “Soft Wire” in making that happen, as opposed to “Hard Wiring” to get the results you want.

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