Sunday, March 16, 2014

Corporate Anarchy isn't the same as a Flat Organization

TL;DR ivory tower speak: Because people are naturally power seeking, flat organizations can turn to anarchy when people play in all swim lanes of power.

Employees at flat companies enable action through persuasion.  Traditional corporations, based on authority, used coercion (you will pull this lever, and I will pay you a dollar).  But, persuasion can be an interesting beast, and is not as simple as choosing the right path. Technology companies have enough different paths to success and the chosen path becomes a political choice more than a practical choice.

If you assume, like me, that all of us seek power, then all the employees in a flat organization seek to be the ones making decisions. Decisions are the ultimate execution of power.  Decisions in technology companies include:

What programming language? What database platform? How much to spend on servers? What features to build? Who to hire?  Who to fire?

Traditional organizations have a single person being the tiebreaker or vetoer for these decisions.  Flat organizations don't have the judge, so employees must play to the jury.  We aren't talking about black and white answers–we are talking about choosing between two choices that are both 7's on a scale of 1 to 10.

Swim Lanes of Power

If all choices are between better than average and less than stellar choices, persuasion is no longer based on knowledge and ability. Persuasion becomes about preference.  Preferences are skewed by relationships.

With the flat organization, you have access to more people to persuade.  Everyone is a both a manager and the bottom of the ladder.  There are no roles to assume, such as leader of a team or manager of a product.  Roles at traditional organizations subtly manipulate and motivate people to act the way to company needs them to act.

Flat organizations, since they don't have granted roles and authority, enable employees to seek alternate means of power, unless held in check.

Traditional Authority Centric Organizations

Traditional organizations skew heavily toward authority by creating roles.  An assumption of a role by an employee allows them to compartmentalize the other Social, Knowledge & Ability, and Physical power swim lanes.  The issue with traditional organizations is the questioning of a person's source of authority (i.e. nepotism or friendship).  But, the person with authority has authority, until he doesn't.

Sick Flat Orgs

Flat organizations are not equipped with roles to assume.  Flat organizations require people to play in each of the swim lanes of power.  If a person cannot find the power he seeks in Knowledge and Authority, and feels frustrated, there are two options: either follow or resort to other channels.

For sick, flat organizations, dysfunctional power structures exist, and have their origins in the beginning of the organization.  Those jokes and conversations that were in private between founders manifest themselves into company cultures.

Unhealthy flat organizations have all of the sources of power in play.  People use relationships, backchannels, verbal bullying, and disturbing others who are talking to maintain power.  These are used to extol power of people, and thus bend to decisions.

Sick flat organizations convert from meritocracies to oligarchies.

Healthy Flat Structures

Healthy flat structures are the other end of the spectrum.  They consist of people who hold values above power.  The few people that hold authority in a flat organization abhor the dysfunctional swim lanes and raise up people who pursue quality.

Healthy flat structures are against human nature.  It means you have to find people who are mature enough to forgo their thirst for power unhealthy regions.  Then, promote a mature environment to reinforces good choices.

Choosing a flat organization is a choice to rise above the standard.  Cliques in high school are an organizational structure to rise above the flat structure of high school.  As a company leader, you have to rise above the anarchy and inject proper values into the system.