What Many Fail to Remember When Flattening an Organization

Dwight Mihalicz,

469800675Many organizations are collapsing the traditional pyramid structure. They’re replacing it with a more collaborative and innovative environment called the flat organization. The flat organization is intended to encourage creativity and teamwork. It’s hard to argue against this anti-hierarchal organizational design when Google and other leading Fortune 500 companies have implemented it. But is it truly effective?

Why Organizations Adopt a Flatter Approach

Reducing the number of layers can, in fact, have several benefits. It allows organizations to:

  • Increase Engagement: Employees are emotionally connected.
  • Save Money: Spend less on resources because there are fewer staff members.
  • Build Trust: An autonomous environment creates trust.
  • Increase Confidence: Employees are empowered.
  • Improve Communication: Fewer layers allows for a clear chain of communication.
  • Collaboration: Employees have an equal voice.

But there are two critically important factors that most organizations don’t consider when jumping on the flattening bandwagon.

Removing the Wrong Branches

Think about pruning a tree. A professional arborist will trim a tree and selectively remove only branches that aren’t adding value to cultivate its growth. Overall you’ll have a healthier tree that’s able to grow better because every branch and every leaf receives sufficient sunlight.

Like an amateur gardener can trim the tree too aggressively and kill it, so too can an organization be in jeopardy if the wrong cuts are made, or if the cuts are too aggressive. If your organization is inexperienced in “flattening” the structure of an organization, could the cuts can lead to devastating losses of key people or departments.

“Right Size” The Organization

Most organizations grow organically over time because as complexity in an organization increases, more layers are required. There’s just no question about it.

So, over time, organizations will tend to “grow” more layers of management than they actually require. But even with all the attention flat organizations are getting, it’s more important to think about “right-sizing” an organization with the appropriate number of levels.

Scientifically Structured: Layers Are Important

But most CEOs and heads HR don’t realize there are scientific principles that drive the number of layers an organization needs.

The complexity of work drives the creation the right number of levels in an organization. Each level is unique with respect to the complexity of work that must take place in that level. As a result, each level requires managers with different levels of capability to match the complexity of work.

In the absence of understanding and measuring this complexity, most organizations have too many layers of management in some parts of their organization, and too few in others.

Overcompensating Leads To Confusion

Too many layers in an organization decreases engagement, wastes money, and decreases trust and confidence. Removing layers in these situations can benefit the organization, but there is a risk in going too far. An organization made up of only senior leaders and self-managed frontline workers will in all likelihood be rife with confusion and inefficiency. Flattening the structure may work for some organizations because they have too many layers, but it’s more important for organizations to prioritize right-sizing their organization and placing managers with appropriate capabilities in the proper roles.

Though it’s a growing trend, organizations can destroy themselves from within by removing too many layers. Your organization needs the appropriate number of layers to function effectively, efficiently, and successfully. Use the proven research to strike a balance between a collaborative and creative organizational design that also puts the right individuals in the right roles – so that everyone can use their full capability to make decision, take initiatives, and contribute the organization’s success.

Dwight Mihalicz

Dwight Mihalicz has over 40 years’ experience helping local, national, and international organizations achieve greater productivity, efficiency, and performance.
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