The flattened-out approach
“We're definitely seeing a shift away from the traditional hierarchy to one that is much more focused on open and transparent communication and collaboration,” explains Jacob Morgan, best-selling author of The Future of Work and co-founder of the FOW Community. “This isn't a new shift but it's certainly one that I think is gaining much more attention as leaders around the world recognise that traditional ways of doing things are no longer working.
This doesn't mean we need to get rid of hierarchy entirely since some structure is indeed good. It's about making organisations “flatter”, more efficient in decision-making and doing away with levels of unnecessary bureaucracy.
Self-management in practice
The idea of adopting a ‘flatter’ structure than the traditional hierarchy is nothing new, of course; though there are also a handful of organisations out there that have made great strides by dismantling tradition altogether. We can point to companies like Gore & Associates as a prime example of doing it right. The materials science giant – famed for flagship product Gore-Tex – has become a pioneering case study for structural innovation, largely due to its long-standing approach to self-management and workforce autonomy.
Speaking in a 2010 interview, CEO Terri Kelly explained the approach taken by Gore and how it sets a strong foundation for success: “Our first defining feature is that we don’t operate in a command and control hierarchy where decisions have to make their way up and down an organisation before they are actioned. Instead, we have a latticed network in place, so that you always go to directly the person you need to make a key decision.
“Along with that, we really try to resist giving specific ranking titles to our people. We have lots of people in responsible roles within the organisation, but the whole notion of a title puts you in a position where you have assumed authority over all others. We see our people as ‘associates’ rather than employees. Each person who works at Gore self-commits to what they want to work on, rather than a boss telling you what to do.”
This self-management model has proven to be a benchmark of success for alternative business structures, and it’s no surprise that many other organisations have since arranged themselves in the same vein. Video game developer Valve and food processing company Morning Star offer two more famous examples. Yet it’s also worth stating that most successful companies operating under this style of self-management have implemented that structure from the very beginning. The task of completely transforming an already established structure, particularly within larger organisations, may well prove impossible; or, at the very least, incredibly costly in terms of time and capital.