Hacker News new | past | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login
No Kings: How Do You Make Good Decisions Efficiently in a Flat Organization? (doist.com)
745 points by eugenegamma on June 11, 2019 | hide | past | favorite | 303 comments

The problem with explicit leadership positions is that people have no downward mobility. If you are bad, then the organization loses a great resource. I like the model of dept head in academia. Professors really want to be doing research, but they also need a dept head who handles administration. No one really wants to do it, so it rotates through the department. There are some perks like a pay bump, reduced teaching, extra grad assistants (or whatever).

Many more people get a chance to try out a leadership role to grow, but it is expected to be temporary so people can go back to being technical with no repercussions. Individual contributors get better perspective on management. People that are good at it and have an affinity for it stay in the role longer.

Self organizing teams still have a leader, but the team selects the leader.

Unfortunately, this sort of ignores that many academic departments are often crippled by overwhelming internal politics, and they rarely scale beyond a few dozen people at most. Moreover, many academicians within a department often work on completely separate projects requiring little or no coordination of any kind. This is dramatically different from what is encountered in many commercial organizations and companies.

My experience is that flat structures in large commercial enterprises usually reproduce stratified structures embedded within them, and they actually enhance the degree of stratification by obscuring who makes decisions and creating unassailable cliques.

And large companies are not crippled by internal politics?

Large companies tend towards politics because it’s hard to build empathy and trust across thousands of people. Academic departments tend towards politics because nominal leaders either have no training or no power

The battles are so fierce because the stakes are so low.

Yes and no. The stakes are low in terms of the organization as a whole, but extremely high for the participants because the tiny stakes represent the bulk of their available resources.

Picture a hungry crowd of 100 people. They will fight each other over 10 sacks of rice because without those 'low stakes' some people are going to starve and die. They can't wait for there to be a bigger prize worth struggling over because if they they'll be dead. So what looks like petty conflict from above is actually desperate struggle for survival from below.

When someone at the top of a hierarchy points to a conflict at a lower level and says it's petty and invalid, the higher-up(s) have generally made it that way and are lying about that fact to preserve or increase their power, by offering implicit bribes to whoever is willing to kick their peers on behalf of the higher-up(s). Any time such a person talks about 'the bigger picture' it's an invitation to participants in a lower-level resource conflict to defect to the hierarchy in exchange for a minor elevation in status.

Not always true. My wife is in academia and involved in multimillion euro projects, and oh boy - do they fight. Usually dirty.

It's harder for large organizations to make decisions than smaller organizations. But a hierarchy helps not hinders that process.

Sure. But I’ve seen fiefdoms and cronyism pop up in parts of a hierarchy. The decisions that got made can only be described as attempts to bolster their CVs.

small companies have internal politics too, if they're crippling depends on factors but it is very possible

I think that this is an excellent insight.

Explicit leadership roles also inevitably result in situations like, "well, they were the best person we had at the time" whereby a very unsuitable leader is kept in power. The worst orgs I've participated in have suffered from this kind of problem.

People only fantasize about flat orgs when theirs is led poorly.

This is a really underrated comment. I was gung ho about weakly-hierarchical organization in the workplace until I worked for a very talented manager with lots of experience who worked hard to facilitate his team, in a company run by a ruthless dictator. One of the most oft-repeated mantras overheard in the army is "Shit rolls downhill" and this guy seemed to concern himself solely with shielding the team from the frequent bloodbaths happening elsewhere in the company while also sweating hard to chase down the things each one of us needed to excel.

That's why democracies have terms of office, and that's exactly what we do in our student organisation.

You're right: there has to be a way to get somebody out of a misfitting leadership role without completely humiliating him. Regular elections are a great way of doing so, and giving many different people the chance to lead benefits both them and the organisation.

One method I've found to work well, especially with engineers:

Make it clear to the team that the new leader is stepping up temporarily to fill a significant business need. That the engineer is doing the team a favor by doing this and that the plan is for it to be temporary because that engineer is a great IC.

It then becomes very easy for the new leader to go back to being an IC. They can even be thanked for stepping up to help the company during a critical time. They can also easily do it again in the future.

If the person is a great lead and gains the team's respect, then simply make it permanent.

That last bit makes the rest look like a rather transparent attempt to mask a trial period.

That's exactly what it is. But people all knowing a thing individually and a thing being announced to the group are two different scenarios.

That is fair because it allows the person a chance to test it out as well. Both would need to agree. When they go back they go back with respect.

Polite fictions make the world go round!


IC stands for Individual Contributor.

Questions for you,

Does your student org suffer from student churn? As in, it's active from Sept-Apr, and 'dead' between May-Aug? Is the idea of student buy-in/engagement something your org has to contend with with?

We are the SMD, an association of Christian student unions in Germany. Although we do have some supporting full-time staff members, all of the work in our local chapters and quite a bit of the work in our national leadership is the responsibility of student volunteers (like myself).

Speaking locally: if we as students want something to happen, we make it happen - if we don't, it doesn't. Obviously, attendance at our events varies widely between term-time and holiday-time, but we do have enough active members to guarantee our weekly meetings taking place whenever.

Of course, recruiting new active members is a constant and central challenge, but thankfully, my group has been able to maintain a pretty good level (~20 active members out of ~60 regular visitors). Most of the work our regional full-time staff do relates to coaching these active members, and especially the group leaders they elect each semester.

Does that answer your questions, or did you want to know something else too?

I was probing for the nature of your org because I hail from one of the largest student housing coops in Canada. It sounds nice at first, but the headaches/politics/etc are proportionately sized. We instituted terms of office for board execs some 6/7 years ago, though the internal power structures that people spoke about in this thread are very much a thing here.

It was a soberly disappointing read, if I'm being honest. When you say, "if we as students want something to happen, we make it happen - if we don't, it doesn't", I wish I could jam that into the minds of our members. That said, there was a post on HN about loneliness the other day that had over 1000 comments, and I believe that's exacerbated in our metropolitan city; an existential threat to the cooperative spirit. We're working on it, will continue.

PS: Greetings, and blessings, from Canada.

I wish you all the best, and thank you for the greetings! :-)

I don't doubt this but I'm going to point out this will also introduce politics and campaigning. People will probably tend to group up.

That is a danger, although I personally haven't experienced it yet. Actually, we tend to have the opposite problem, that too few people are willing to take on the responsibilities of a leadership role. We have more potentially good leaders declining to take the role out of lack of self-confidence than we have bad leaders trying to take it.

The way my workplace addresses this is:

1. Transitioning to management or tech lead is not a promotion, but a change in responsibilities (and transitions back are common);

2. Whether manager or IC, we only promote people based on demonstrated ability, not potential, to avoid the Peter Principle

>Transitioning to management or tech lead is not a promotion, but a change in responsibilities (and transitions back are common);

I strongly agree with this idea. "Servant Leadership" is one way to handle this, where management positions are framed entirely around enabling the ICs, catalyzing communication, and moving things forward, rather than "Command & Control" styles based on tracking, scheduling, and assigning work.

>we only promote people based on demonstrated ability, not potential, to avoid the Peter Principle

In my experience, this attitude often can lead to moving the conflict to "what qualifies as 'demonstrated ability?'," rather than "who do we think might do well in this role." I find the former argument far more tiresome and difficult to resolve with good leadership, rather than the latter, which requires more soft skills and conflict resolution abilities. Coupled with the idea of removing the taboo from Management-->IC transitions, I think focusing on good leaders increasing their effectiveness at identifying other good leaders, both picking positively and countering bias, can probably have better outcomes than a system based around somehow proving ahead of time that someone has some defined abilities before allowing them to attempt to grow into a role. I think most people can grow into a role faster than they can figure out how to pull the right political levers to "demonstrate" their abilities for a promotion while still fulfilling their current role.

This can end up somewhat like a "Reverse Peter Principle," if you will. Instead of people stagnating at some "ratcheted" rung on a single ladder due to lack of ability or motivation to excel in their current role, you have people stagnating because they are focused on demonstrating things outside their current role, rather than fulfilling core duties.

Not totally disagreeing with you, overall. It's just a balance to strike.

I think 1. is very good In most companies the rational decision is to go into management because you make more money. If that incentive is removed I think we will have better managers and individual contributors because they could choose their path without financial preasure.

It depends on the organization. We've had leaders move back to IC roles (and are going through one of these transitions now, actually), but I think it requires the organization to be explicitly supportive of such moves. We call it finding your "zone of genius". We'd much rather keep a good person then lose them because they're best suited for another role.

Holacracy has some mechanisms for this -- work gets divided into explicit roles (most people have 3-15), and what roles you fill can be pretty fluid based on the needs of the work, etc. Some roles may come with some decision-making power, and management functions get divided among the roles in whatever way makes sense for the job -- sometimes they cluster at a single point (such as a liaison to a bunch of outside contractors), while other times they're completely distributed between roles or even delegated to a process rather than an individual. There's a lead for each "circle" (team), but it's mostly a coordinating role -- they search for the ideal role-fillers, and they manage questions of prioritization (at least by default -- basically everything is customizable in Holacracy). There's nothing particularly special or manager-y about the lead role (I actually strongly dislike the one lead role I have), and leads can't hire or fire people to the company, so even if you get moved out of a role that doesn't necessarily mean anything for your job (although if no one thinks you're a good fit for roles in any circles, that doesn't bode well).

It avoids the politics of democratic selection, while decentralizing the power dynamics enough that tyranny is more-or-less impossible.

If your organisation already has good management, then promoting the right people isn’t that hard of a problem to solve.

> Self organizing teams still have a leader, but the team selects the leader.

People who are good leaders will naturally start to show leadership aptitude, without being given any management position. If you have good management, then those people can be fostered. They can be given extra responsibility (without being given a promotion), and if it goes well, they can be promoted. If it goes poorly, they can go back to what they were doing, no harm done.

It's the last place you'd expect, but the (Canadian) military actually has this in a certain measure. Unit commanders are only appointed for a limited term (usually 3 years), after which they're expected to move on to another unit.

In the Canadian Cadets program, we dont have that expectation, so corps commanders usually stay in the same corps and either mentor the new commander or take on a specific role if there's a need.

There's one "old" captain at my corps who has been mentoring many generations of officiers; I wasn't even born during his first term as commander.

That does mean that there isn't much room to grow past that, though. Luckily, teenagers (and activities offered to teenagers) change a lot through the years, so that forces us to always be innovating.

US military does this as well (shorter duration). The reason is so that people are loyal to the role, not the person.

"You don't have to respect the man but you have to respect the rank."

Our teams at Tanium do something similar. There’s no pay bump to lead the group... and we have a number of folks who’ve led the a team and then went back to IC. It’s worked quite well overall; however, is a difficult position (sometimes leading north of forty folks)

Not giving you extra money for it is probably the best role but how does one ever actually move up at this place in that case?

In general we hire folks who've already been peak career (think like MS premier field engineers for 15+ years), give them an amorphous organization to work with, and treat them like adults. People lift each other up and successes are celebrated. It's not really a place where folks want to be "senior executive vice president" type title BS. Comp is based on a cut of revenue which encourages teamwork like nothing else (every customer's problem affects you).

It's unique .. and not for most people probably.

I am wholly convinced that the reason terrible young shitbags (like myself) can join the army and end up doing very well is because the army does what seemingly no one else does, which is treating them like adults by giving them pretty huge responsibilities and holding them accountable.

It would probably not surprise you the number of vets we have working for us (or that "extreme ownership" is on the required reading list when you join)

At least at many big companies, there’s a dual career ladder for ICs and managers, with equal pay across equivalent levels (e.g. Manager ~ Senior engineer, Director ~ Principal Engineer)

> The problem with explicit leadership positions is that people have no downward mobility. If you are bad, then the organization loses a great resource.

There is downward mobility if you want it.

I have seen technical people promoted to managerial positions in the 'usual' way, i.e. seniority, who ended up not liking it and not who were not very good at it, and went back to purely technical positions within the same organisation.

Nothing prevents this as long as people are sensible, talk, and don't promote battles of egos in the organisation.

There's one thing I've learned from white water rafting: On slow parts democracy works fine - everyone discussing about the best path - but when things start happening fast you need a single captain to make the calls, otherwise you end up hitting every single rock in the river while trying to agree if it's better to go left or right around it.

That's a good point when in that situation. But it's worth remembering that in development people are rarely in that situation. For various reasons, however people (including me) often bring that kind of emergency thinking into development and it just shows things down. Rushing into the debugger instead of slowing down for a minute and thinking about it for a minute. Doing a little bit of design and thinking about what I want from the system instead of getting lost in the details of the existing implementation.

Most of the time in development we need to slow down to go much faster. It's nothing like white water rafting (it would be cool though if it could be like rafting sometimes - everyone gets sick of having to slow down all the time at some point)

In this case, I understood the rapids to mean things like production incidents necessitating a coordinated incident response system with well-defined roles and responsibilities.

It’s important to have an Incident Commander, but that goes by the oncall rotation, no the org chart.

That's true. We have a dedicated triage team. In the land of Microservices it probably makes the most sense as it's probably harder than ever to pin down the group to fix something in a large org.

As I read it, the point of the article is to explain how you deal with decisions when the "captain" can be anyone in a group, and not some designated hierarchical leader.

It's not democracy per se: for instance a designer can come with a proposition to give people a chance to review it. In the rafting example they're basically saying "we go right", and will do so if nobody shouts "there's a cliff on the right".

Look at the time, it is hair-splitting o'clock! >_>

Having a single captain can still be a democratic system; what is being replaced isn't the democratic element (where power rests with the people) - that is still in place. What is being changed is swapping a deliberative assembly (or committee or something) for a single executive for making decisions.

So what is being identified is technically something like 'deliberative assemblies are better at dividing up resources and responsibilities but single executives are better at implementing policies and achieving outcomes'.

Interestingly, this is a lesson that is implicitly very well understood by major democracies without being explicitly bought up very often.

This is fairly topical point. Yet in terms of maximizing stability, it seems like those democracies that do -not- vest too much executive power in a single person tend to fair better. Many presidential systems which adhere to strict notions of unitary executive theory are finding themselves at the mercy of unaccountable and uncontrollable leaders, while parliamentary and semi-presidential systems which better distribute executive authority and retain close accountability to democratic feedback mechanisms fair better.

Look at the time, it is hair-splitting o'clock! >_>

Stop! Pedanto-Time!


a somewhat similar phenomenon happens in basketball. when the game is not competitive, no leader is needed and everyone just plays to their ability (and hopefully to their strengths).

but when the game gets competitive, it's easy to fall apart and get beaten without a leader. on offense, that's usually the point guard (e.g., steph curry), who implicitly chooses who gets the ball, when they get it, and for how long. on defense, a forward/center (e.g., draymond green), who can see the whole floor in front of them, often has the responsibility of coordinating the defense to minimize gaps and mismatches.

Perhaps you need "situational captains"? Identify strengths/weaknesses of your own staff and when SHTF, delegate to one that can employ their strengths to resolve your situation, while keeping communication channels open to the rest of your team in case somebody has a better idea?

I believe most people would appreciate if they weren't infantilized and forced to defer to some dysfunctional hierarchy.

If you haven’t got a situational captain on your floor then, well, you probably don’t have a highly profitable and hugely successful multinational company.

Sounds kind of like holocracy.

For very slow parts a captain is probably also more helpful. I.e. if you were on the open ocean, you should probably listen to one person that has some kind of compass, instead of going in circles.

But democracies are capable of producing such leaders when required, as England did for the Second World War.

One boat one captain!

I would like to refer to the following - The Tyranny of Structurelessness, originally meant to address the concerns regarding 'flat' organizations.

"This means that to strive for a structureless group is as useful, and as deceptive, as to aim at an "objective" news story, "value-free" social science, or a "free" economy. A "laissez faire" group is about as realistic as a "laissez faire" society; the idea becomes a smokescreen for the strong or the lucky to establish unquestioned hegemony over others...

...Thus structurelessness becomes a way of masking power, and within the women's movement is usually most strongly advocated by those who are the most powerful (whether they are conscious of their power or not). As long as the structure of the group is informal, the rules of how decisions are made are known only to a few and awareness of power is limited to those who know the rules. Those who do not know the rules and are not chosen for initiation must remain in confusion, or suffer from paranoid delusions that something is happening of which they are not quite aware."


Most flat org I've seen are not flat. The people naturally organised in tribes that are only known by themself, and that are in no organigram.

Each tribe have an implicit leader that bears no title yet influences all decisions just by regular social interractions.

Tribes communicate, negociate even, through the implicit leaders even if not directly.

Some kind of overuling bdfl also oversees all tribes, like a king, in case of conflict or emergency. Often the CEO.

It's not "flat org", it's just good ol' human society.

Rules are less clear, social skills are more required and if you get there in the early days you get a big advantages over the newcomers.

But if you get a nice tribe, things rock.

Also, authority by expertise vs authority by hierarchy make a big difference.

As in, people have the security guy vet their security decisions — not because he has power over them but because they trust his expertise.

Suddenly everything becomes easy and self organized.

When "everything becomes easy and self organized", it's generally because there is an implicit leader that makes it so. You may not see the leader, as he or she may have no title or recognition. But it's the person that people go to when they have problems, it's the person people turn their head to during disagreements in meetings, it's the person that will go from party to party to discuss "off-the-record" and do the real negotiations, it's the person that show example, encourage efforts and discourage disruption.

You just think it's self organized because a good leader makes you feel you are part of a whole, not that you are working under someone.

I've yet to see a group a human, working together over time, that doesn't see one leader emerge from the group. We can't help it.

I've went to NGO stating they were a flat org, hippie events where they promote the team spirit, eco-villages with community driven systems. They all have unacknowledged leaders.

Is it always a single person?

Leadership can be exercised by non-leaders, sure. But the kind of leader the GP is talking about is an authority figure which tends to be centralized in a given domain.

> Suddenly everything becomes easy and self organized.

Unfortunately not. A technocracy works great works great when choices are straight-forward, but one of the great responsibilities of leadership is taking decisions when things are anything but.

A good leader is not one who always knows the right answer, but one who knows how to figure out a good enough answer more often than not. And who does so under confusing circumstances, competing interests, and intense time pressure.

I am not sure finding acceptable answers in confusing and complex situations needs to be the role of a leader.

For instance in some orgs being a system architect has no hierarchical implications. People who are recognised to be good at designing systems get the title, take decisions when no clear consensus is reached, and can still be overruled when other experts veto their decisions (it then becomes a matter of which expert has precedence. E.g. legal wins over anything else)

And far more often than we like to admit, making a decision is more important than making the best decision.

And when wrong decisions are being made too often, formal structure helps to hold leaders accountable for their decisions.

I don't believe there's any such thing as authority by expertise for any meaningfully sized group of people. It works right up until there's a conflict between the security expert and the UI expert, or any other expert. Then whoever "wins" ends up being whoever has the most unspoken political power or the more forceful personality. And maybe the best choice ends up getting made for the product, and maybe it doesn't. And maybe it was one of those cases where the expert was just plain wrong but all of the other non-experts weren't empowered to push back, because there's no organization and it's supposedly a Platonic ideal of a meritocracy.

Every specialist faces a lifelong moral hazard/cognitive bias in which they overvalue the thing that's important to them (because it's literally their job to value that thing above all other considerations, and their value to their employer is based on a perception that the thing they know about is really really important), and they undervalue everything else. The job of an organization is to provide an explicit framework to allow everyone to have their say, and enable an actionable consensus to be formed. And every single person involved might think that that consensus is fatally flawed because it doesn't go quite far enough with respect to whatever the thing they care most about is. But really that's just the organization minimizing everyone's individual biases, so whatever gets produced is more likely to be closer to what's ideal for the majority of users.

The flat meritocracy ideal also ignores the fact that there are very few objectively correct answers to anything in software design. Get three different specialists in the same area and you might get three different answers over what needs to be done, and three different weightings of all the different pros and cons in every decision that affects other parts of the product. Most likely, none of them are wrong, but more importantly none of them are likely to be the One True Correct Answer, but it's human nature for each one of them to feel like that's what they're offering so of course they're going to argue for it. Most likely there is no One True Correct Answer to begin with, only sets of compromises that are more or less desirable. A true flat meritocracy would only work if there were correct answers that don't involve compromising anything else, and the specialists knew them all the time.

> Then whoever "wins" ends up being whoever has the most unspoken political power or the more forceful personality.

I suspect the forceful personality can be a learned behavior as well. I.e. your ideas get accepted when you really push for them, so then you do that more often. Then your peers expect this from you, so your lack of aggression might be seen as an implicit disapproval somehow (e.g. "X is usually excited by their good ideas, so this one must suck"). Pretty soon you are just being a dick all the time.

I hypothesize that in-person/video/audio meetings exacerbate this. In my experience you have to be forceful to interrupt whoever is talking to introduce your idea. Some people will talk in any gap and just keep going so it's a struggle to wait for natural breaks. However I always felt too rude to give feedback like "you generally talk too much" since that's essentially an attack on their personality, so it never seems to get better. In formats with more concurrency, (email, chat, collaborative documents, code review, etc.), this issue doesn't seem as bad (although async formats tend to have the opposite problem of chronic absenteeism, which I also found difficult to give feedback on).

Referent power — people listen to you because they want to be like you. Even for leaders in a position of authority this is often the most powerful way to lead and influence.


All of human history in one comment.


He refers himself as “the leader of Doist’s back-end team” so there is indeed some sort of structure.

Read the comments before the article, and I was kind of hoping that maybe the 'Doists' were a faction within the company. Maybe those that organized around a "bias for action" or something. They frequently go to war with the Architecture Astronauts.


They prefer the term Archonauts.

Lets examine this against the top, root comment, and their comparison to white water rafting.

We can debate our course while we cruise slowly on smooth water. But in choppy waters, we need a Captain to decide whether we go left or right around that big rock.

I dont see this as such a bad thing for Flat Orgs. Nobody is in charge, but someone has to make the decisions.

If we need to switch out who's in the role? Its a lot easier when there's no official title, no extra prestige, no pay raise, nothing but the burden of leadership actually felt as a burden.

But what'll make that burden worthwhile? I care that my comra-... coworkers and I get this chance to enrich ourselves and our clients. Maybe we're sheltering in place from an economic maestrom outside, maybe we're here to make a home, maybe this is one step on a larger journey. Regardless, we have much to offer one another along the way.

One problem is the lack of accountability. Someone is making decisions, but that someone is not taking responsibility of outcomes of those decisions.

> If we need to switch out who's in the role? Its a lot easier when there's no official title, no extra prestige, no pay raise, nothing but the burden of leadership actually felt as a burden.

No, it's harder. If nobody is actually named the leader, there can be no official point in time when the role changes hands. The organization will most often break apart at that point.

That's what the essay is about.

A few years ago I joined a company with "self-organizing" teams, which have many similarities to "structureless".

It was an awful experience, for me at least. Many important choices were made by people trying to avoid ruffling the feathers of the least-mature team member.

My woes were likely compounded by being mildly affected by Asperger syndrome: First, I have an innate preference for clear organization and structure. Second, it took tremendous mental/emotional energy to navigate the social/interpersonal minefield tied to every technical decision.

Perhaps my experience was unusual, but I cannot understand the thinking that leads upper-management to think this approach is a good idea.

I prefer the Scandinavian (specifically Swedish approach) that I experienced at a prior company. It has its shortcomings of course. But put simply, there is a clear hierarchy, but generally most decisions are made by establishing consensus or compromise between all involved parties, the "manager/boss" only steps in to resolve or veto/tie break if none can be reached. It's not structure-less, and there are certainly teams, but employees generally work towards what they feel is the best solution.

Reading suggestion WRT to this approach:


Can you elaborate a bit?

If I remember the section of that book correctly, Andrew Grove talks about how you want to handle decision making as a manager. According to Andrew, you want to have folks come to a decision with minimal intervention from you. Part of it is having people feel ownership, another is managing your own political capital. In terms of when you intervene, you should step in and help break ties. You should also be able to ultimately make a decision if the group is unable to do so either because they're taking way too long to deliberate, if their arguments are going full circle, etc.

If managers only exist to break ties why not simply create teams with odd numbers of members and they would no longer be required?

Breaking ties is not only between equal numbers of people. It can be between one person with a very strong point of view and five others that oppose that decision.

That's interesting. I've had the almost exact opposite experience. In my case, leadership by consensus seemed to be a way to defer decisions (sometimes indefinitely in the case of hard/unpopular decisions) and diffuse accountability. I wonder if the method works better in some cultures but not others.

I have worked in several Swedish companies, and I prefer the Swedish approach of not having several layers of hierarchy, but I really don't prefer the Swedish approach of just about everything needing full consensus, or being a total democracy.

Basically I recognise the problems described in the article.

What makes that a Swedish approach?

I don't think it's uniquely ours, but it is certainly ubiquitous here. So far I haven't encountered a workplace here that doesn't run that way.

ironically given the article title, this is basically the definition of a good monarchy..

I have the same experience in a "matrix management" organization. It seems like the managers figured out how to delegate the act of management to their reports.

This is pretty much the set of insights that led to creating Holacracy (which is all about explicit structure and process) as an upgrade to chaotic, structureless anti-manager methods. I love working in a self-managed, self-organizing company... but only because it runs on Holacracy. I would never (again) work anywhere with a consensus decision-making mechanism.

how did you manage to land a job in the first place?

Found the team member!

I work for a "flat" company. I've certainly observed some of the troubling characteristics of this organizational approach described above and elsewhere in comments.

There are some positive characteristics [in our implementation at least] as well, a few of which are :

1) Decisions with broad effect [i.e., beyond the decider's personal work domain] are handled with the "advice process," wherein all affected parties are consulted and their advice weighed before the decision is taken. This can be cumbersome, but on the other hand, it is a check against "cowboy" and "act first, consider later" types.

2) Each person is assigned an "area of responsibility / AOR" -- a work or problem domain[s] in which they are acknowledged to hold more expertise than those not assigned that 'AOR.' This prevents [in practice] people [say] in the shipping department making decisions about software development.

3] The org is not _totally_ flat. The CEO and COO are acknowledged to have veto power and the 'AOR' of big decisions that have a potentially existential bearing on the company.

Having always worked at rigidly hierarchical companies before this, I'll say I've more or less gotten used to it and can see the benefits.

One thing I especially like about it is that there is no chance of an "Office Space" situation where a boss, or bosses, continually interrupt work to pester about things that are wastes of time -- each worker is more or less left to determine their own task prioritization and has the power to discontinue tasks that are pointless. We use the kanban system for task / bug / feature tracking.

Yes AORs are great and is quite a complete system (rough consensus is nice too but that’s only a part of the solution) - here’s more details on AORs:


When you are talking about complex dynamic systems like human group behavior you can always find counter examples to anything anyone points at.

Here's an example of from Niall Ferguson's book The Square and the Tower - "Formally, the directors of the East India Company (EIC) in London controlled a substantial part of the trade between India and western Europe. In reality, as the records of over 4,500 voyages by Company traders show, ship’s captains often made illicit side trips, buying and selling on their own account. By the late eighteenth century the number of ports in the resulting trade network was more than a hundred, ranging from open emporia such as Madras to regulated markets such as Canton (Guangzhou). In effect, private trading provided the weak links that knitted together otherwise disconnected regional clusters. This network had a life of its own that the Company’s directors in London simply did not control. Indeed, that was one of the keys to the success of the EIC: it was more a network than a hierarchy. Significantly, its Dutch rival banned private trade by its employees. This may help explain why it ended up being superseded"

What works and what doesn't varies a lot from org to org.

It’s hard not to see this as purely a response to an article title. It bears no relation to the actual article content, which was thoughtful and interesting and really deserved a more on-topic critique.

There is a great deal of this on HN.

Flat does not mean structureless. Jo Freeman's piece correctly points out that groups without structure inevitably grow shadow organigrams. My point here is that flat structures should lack hierarchy but they should strive to make their organization as transparent as possible.

Saving this as it makes the point I've been trying to make for years much more elegantly.

Just because you don't call out the structure doesn't mean there isn't one.

While I agree with something of an abstraction of what they're saying, when I read things like this, it's hard for me to see anything but a person that wants to hijack the tyranny for themselves.

The Jo Freeman article was written in retrospect to her own experiences with the feminist movement in the 1960s - she has another article - "Trashing: The Dark Side of Sisterhood" - that I think illustrates very well that in spite of her belief of the movement, she had been hurt by its methodology (which was by no means exclusive to the feminist movement, as we see here) and not to mention was in no position to be able to "take power." She wrote these things in hope that the movement could course-correct, not out of some calculated Machiavellian strategy.


I think perhaps I could have been more perspicuous in my post, as both replies to my original post seem to focus on specifics when I'm talking about the more general case. In that regard, I'm not talking specifically about flat hierarchies, feminism or these individuals (though certainly it is true in some cases).

> it's hard for me to see anything but a person that wants to hijack the tyranny for themselves

If you're speaking generally, who is "a person" you are referring to here? The person who writes about the structurelessness?

The person who talks about shunting in their own authority to make value judgments in place of existing ones.

I've seen / experienced several train-wrecks caused by flat / self-organizing teams (see my sibling comment). In those catastrophes, I would have been glad for almost anybody to take on the role of team leader / manager.

So I'd be reluctant to assume the argument for structure is motived by personal ambition.

I've been in the opposite situation once and it turns out upper management wasn't really fine with a self directed team without a designated manager / leader.

Granted they wanted to introduce changes and needed someone to enforce that. We ended up sort of pushing in unison for the person who we thought would be the best and he did a fine job managing that team.

There's something to be said for containing your problems in a nice public position so their overreaches can be easily seen and warned about, and their tyranny can be limited in scope.

It's like a cage rat trap with some peanut butter for bait. Once inside, you still have to deal with rat feces, but over a much smaller and more manageable area. On the other side, the rat is always visible now...

Talk about killing the messenger...

I disagree. I oppose concentrations of power. Will there be a certain power disparity and hegemony of certain particiants in their little groups? Sure, but as long as they are prevented or discouraged by various mechanisms from joining together into still larger groups, then everyone still has a fighting chance of opposing them or switching groups. The trouble arises when you have concentrations of power. Just look at the Web! It disrupted AOL. And Wikipedia disrupted Britannica.

I think it is worth reading the whole essay (The Tyranny of Structurelessness), which does a great job of articulating how if there are no formal levers of power it becomes very difficult for people who don't have power to make changes within the organization.

For example, if I'm part of a club and I think the treasurer is doing a bad job, if there are 'formal' elections I can run for treasurer (or vote for a different treasurer) and make changes.

In a structureless org it is much harder to tell the 'popular people' that, for example, some of the expenses they are having the club reimburse should actually be paid out of pocket (because by definition the 'popular people' have a lot of informal influence - average or unpopular people are much easier to correct).

If one person is highly charismatic they could wield huge amounts of power in a structureless organization - but in a structured organization there can be clear limits on what each role can do. Structures can constrain power and make it easier for those with less informal power to make changes or to create those limits.

It shouldn’t be easy to make GLOBAL changes within the organization, even by those WITH some power.

Global Changes imply that someone has the power to changes how the whole organization operates, which is the whole point of concentration of power.

If something is that major, then all the participants or factions have to unite on that one thing and then disband.

There is no “club” and there is no single “club account” that a treasurer controls. If there has to be one for purposes of interfacing with others, we have a computer network emulate it to the outside.

Concentration of power can be defined, measured, and opposed in principle. The question is, can any structure prevent it? Every unit of time it has to be more expensive to maintain a faction than to let it disband. And you have to factor in all the possible ways to profit by collusion, that’s what the challenge is.

You really should read the essay. One of the takeaways for me was that it is easier to concentrate power in a "structureless" group because it is simply taken. Structure is expressly one way to control & limit the concentration of power.

I agree. I am just saying that structure can be a computer program that makes it costly to collude and organize for long periods of time, and somehow penalizes any gains that the colluders would get to make collusion not pay.

Consider upvoting comments on HN for example. That there is a microcosm of what we are talkung about. We want each vote to be an honest signal, to detect and punish voting rings. But how? There is a computer program in charge ultimately of various things including banning some accounts.

The point of a "flat" organization is not that there is no hierarchy or structure, but that it is not officially prescribed, and instead emerges organically. This allows the structure to change as the needs and members of the team change, whereas in a traditional organization, the leadership and structure often long outlive their usefulness.

Unless everyone can spend money drawn from the corporate account, and everyone can fire anyone else, the structure isn't flat. It's just that management is choosing not to manage. There is a difference.

There are many different layers and dimensions to an organization. Finances and hiring are just a couple. There are also product, sales, marketing, support, IT, and many others. Some can be flat while others are not, and in that case, yes, management responsibilities are de facto, temporary, and built through consensus.

The power to hire or fire and the power to spend money are basically the two most central powers in any company.

The first decides who the company is. The second can decide whether there is a company.

Identity and existence are fairly fundamental things.

Sure, just as wood, concrete, drywall, and paint are pretty fundamental things to building a house. Using the same materials, two houses could come out very different.

There is a spectrum of management style, from complete micromanagement of every schedule, ticket, and team structure. At the other end of the spectrum, you let the product owners set those parameters then reward or punish according to outcomes. Basically just define the fitness function and the product owners will do the rest. People highly underestimate the motivation of ownership and freedom. By the way this only works in orgs with highly capable employees that are self driven. There are not a lot of orgs like this, hence why so many think flat doesn't work. I've had the rare opportunity to work at an org that successfully functioned in this way.

Your original interlocutor argued that

> Unless everyone can spend money drawn from the corporate account, and everyone can fire anyone else, the structure isn't flat.

which I don't think you ever really addressed. That there is more than these powers doesn't change that these powers are basically what defines meaningful hierarchy. They are necessary, but not sufficient; other functions are contributory, but neither necessary nor sufficient in themselves.

You can't have a company without money and people. That's literally what a company is.

> You can't have a company without money and people. That's literally what a company is.

To reiterate my point by playing off your statement: you also can't have a company without a product or service (unless you are Enron). Budgets and hiring are very important, but not core. I have to respectfully disagree.

A friend of mine works in a flat organization, and they're growing so they're building a new office building. They got to a plan somehow that includes a coffee bar inside the office, but the budget didn't allow for it, and then all employees had a vote and decided to increase the budget. I wonder how it'll turn out.

You can have structureless orgs on boards for significant organizations but people need to be accountable for a well-understood scope.

My little league has a president at 20 board members. There is a president and 4-5 committee chairs. (IIRC finance, concession, baseball and grounds) Somebody is responsible for the snack bar, but any board member may be on duty running it at any time.

I've worked on good sized project teams where there was a sponsor (the king), the PM (task guy) and 10-20 contributors. It most mostly democratic as long as the milestones were hit.

I've worked in "flat orgs" where there are 100 employees, a director/vp/king, and a big band of equals. Just like in Animal Farm, some of the animals are more equal than others.

It isn't just Freeman's article. There's a whole academic/industrial literature about this stuff, a literature which seems to have been fairly well known to the broader public about 25 years ago but to be completely unknown to it today: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=19468090#19468699 .

I should copy and paste this into must discussions about how Bitcoin is awesome because it's decentralized and not controlled by a government.

strongly seconding this essay - it remains one of the most influential things i've ever read, in terms of completely and immediately changing my views on a topic.

To me flat orgs default to lord of the flies leadership.

Structurelessness must be distinguished from established structures with a flat hierarchy. Codifying a non-hierarchical structure with explicit rules and norms counters the above situation where a few people start to become dominant through more informal means, and everyone else is left confused.

Flat hierarchies are not necessarily structureless and need not suffer from the drawbacks described above.

What about democracy? It is a clear rule (one person one vote) and yet it is not hierarchical.

> What about democracy? It is a clear rule (one person one vote) and yet it is not hierarchical.

Most, if not all societies do not implement direct democracy, where decisions are truly made by one person one vote.

Most at least employ an abstraction such as representative democracy, and the United States employs an abstraction upon an abstraction with the electoral college.

Couldn't you have both? You have the right to a direct vote, but you also have the option to bestow your vote to a representative to cast for you. Seems like a neat idea and solves many of these structureless problems. Many people know that a topic is out of their reach or interest, but they may know someone knowledgable to give their vote to to cast for them. If they feel that person doesn't represent them, they can immediately reclaim their direct voting right.

What you're describing is proxy voting. It works well in certain circumstances: primarily in shareholding, where there are well-understood ways to divvy up authority. But most proxies are given with general power. This makes them comparable but not identical to a representative system.

The problem with proxies for politics is twofold. First, there is the business of carving out subjects. If I hand John the power to vote on transport and Jill the power to vote on buses, who votes on the integrated schedule for subway-bus terminals? What happens if they both vote? How do I maintain anonymity under these conditions without getting double counted, possibly even cancelling myself out through my proxies? This problem doesn't arise in regular proxies because I can see how my proxy voted and anyone can see who was acting as my proxy. That's not compatible with ballot secrecy.

The second problem is the usual problems of direct democracy, chief among which are demagoguery and mobs. Representative democracy is sluggish compared to direct democracy. That is a feature, not a bug. Imagine if twitter mobs could amend legislation.

This is a nice response, thanks. The one miscalculation here is it's clear that representational democracy is also rife with demagoguery. Because the system is 'slower', it gives those in power the ability to cause damage to the system, but keep their office because they support other populist sentiments. Often the issues that are most important are the ones that get abused, while the popular-but-less-important issues are the ones that people vote on for their representative. Without the representative, then these less popular topics can be voted on justly/rightly by people that need these bills (minority issues in particular). I agree though that the speed of direct democracy can also be problematic in a similar way: too hasty decisions on the popular topics.

I can't reply to js8 due to the indentation level, but that's somewhat new to me. Semi-direct democracy when people use the term seems more related to some occasions where everyone has a chance to participate in a decision, through an initiative, referendum or similar. Wikipedia describes it like this.

But it does not talk about cases where you could opt-in to vote on every decision, and if you did not your representative would vote for you. Basically, you would chose a representative like you do in most countries, which would have the n votes of the people that elected him by default, but at any time you could say this vote is for me, your representative would have minus one vote and you could vote anyway you feel like.

This seens a bit more manageable than what jadbox describes in that you do not have to track potentially million of representatives. The biggest issue would be on how you could vote, because the window has to be relatively short for things to happen, but long enough to allow everyone that wants to to vote.

Yes, this already exists and is called Liquid Democracy or Delegative Democracy. It’s awesome


That's typically called semidirect democracy and is usually what the direct democracy proponents call for.

That's what not voting does...

Oh god, no. By not voting, I've surrendered to what the entire crowd wants by average (which might be entirely counter to the direction I want). By giving my vote to someone else to cast, I temporarily empower my leader who stands for my principles or movement, who may understand better which policies to vote for on my behalf.

>By not voting, I've surrendered to what the entire crowd wants by average (which might be entirely counter to the direction I want).

By having a democracy you've surrendered to what the entire crowd wants by average, by not voting you've surrendered to what the rest of the crowd wants by average, and as the size of the crowd grows the distinction between these two states of surrender approaches zero.

A lot of people who advocate flat or structureless organizations actually have philosophical problems with even direct democracy for decision making.

The big objection is to making majority (or even supermajority) decisions binding on the minority, which is seen as coercive. Smaller objections to things like elected positions and parliamentary procedure, which are seen as too hierarchical.

> A lot of people who advocate flat or structureless organizations actually have philosophical problems with even direct democracy for decision making.

It seems to me they have a problem with anything, frankly.

Mainly I just wanted to point out that democracy is also a flat system and has no kings.

Still, majority in democracy happens ad hoc. You don't know on which side of the fence you will sit. At least, in the mean, you will agree with the majority.

(And by the way, there is a common folklore that representative democracy can protect minorities better. There are several reasons why this is untrue, and in fact, direct democracy protects minorities better than representation.)

> Mainly I just wanted to point out that democracy is also a flat system and has no kings.

Having no kings is not the same as being flat. Democracies have no kings, because any leaders are elected (instead of inheriting/being installed/etc.). But democracies can be anything but flat. Consider Germany, where you have three tiers of government (municipal, state, and federal), and each tier is further subdivided in its hierarchy of power (e.g. Member of Parliament, cabinet minister, chancellor).

I guess it depends on definition of "flat" (or "without hierarchy". The way I understand flat is that people are peers, they have same access to power. That is, there are no kings and no lords, either.

That doesn't mean there cannot be "hierarchy" in the sense of administrative division (state, county) or in the sense of respect (like in Linux kernel development for instance).

Could you elaborate on the several reasons in your last sentence, possibly by pointing towards some sources?

Historical instances of politically soverign and stable direct democracies are exceedingly rare, and so it is difficult to say definitively that minorities would be treated better or worse than in representative democracy.

In the Athenian democracy minorities were inter alia excluded from political decision making - one had to be a male member of the ethnic majority to participate, there was no mechanism for obtaining citizenship other than blood.

However - in comparison to how other Greek cities treated them, metics (resident aliens) in Athens enjoyed far greater security and had codified rights.

To me this latter point is decisive in showing that the horizon of direct democracy is always towards greater inclusiveness. But one has to make up one's own mind on these matters.

I am hard pressed to see Athens from a few thousand years ago as a real case study, its simply to far out of our frame of reference. Switzerland in more recent history is a rather ugly counterexample to your theory. They had a referendum on women suffrage in 1959 which was declined by a 2 to 1 ratio. You assume a well meaning population, which doesnt have to be the case. Direct democracy is still the dictatorship of the majority over the minority. There is just the hope to have better chances on get the equivalent of a benevolent dictator instead of mad tyrants. And if that fails we put our hope in the bdfl in form of the constitution.

But back to the point i dont think you can compare business with societal structures. We are not doing democracy because its more efficient. Its extra effort we spend in hopes to achieve a better society. People have an entirely different stake in their job as in society. For your job the hassle is likely not worth the trade off (if there are any for an employee).

And back to OP

>A lot of people who advocate flat or structureless organizations actually have philosophical problems with even direct democracy for decision making.

I have to agree with the statement. The "real" democracy as a solution to the problem of organizations falls short. Crimethinc had an interesting article on the topic (which got turned into a book later) https://crimethinc.com/2016/04/29/feature-from-democracy-to-... . Its their usual over the top approach but an interesting line of thought.

Although, you lost me here

>Smaller objections to things like elected positions and parliamentary procedure, which are seen as too hierarchical.

I wouldnt say proponents of non hierarchical forms of organization have less of a problem with the representative approach.

Even if you think direct democracies are the best, how do they scale? As a group (or society) grows, there are simply too many decisions to make for everyone to participate in every decision.

Direct democracy does not imply that everyone participate in every decision, merely that everyone has the potential to do so, with respect to constitutive matters. Prepetory committees would iron out most details.

Like Switzerland: most decisions are made by elected officials but when the people disagrees, it overrides them.

Yes! No sources, it's just an observation.

One reason is that representation by definition focuses on people and trust in them (you are selecting "your man"), as opposed to issues. Some politicians try to incite inter-group hatred, because it is a strategy that pays off in this game. This brings out human ingroup/outgroup biases and that then causes issues for the minorities. (We have some evidence that people in Switzerland do not see "losing" in particular referendum as a big deal, they understand that the minority is adhoc.)

The other reason is that representatives are typically given authority over bunch of issues bundled together. So majority might vote in a representative because they agree with their economic policy, but they don't neccessarily agree with his, say, immigration policy. In fact, for less important issues, the elected representative can have completely minority opinions!

That means that unless the majority has horrible opinions (which it rarely has in actuality, and then it's questionable how any form of government arising from that culture could deal with this case anyway), there is always a risk of voting in a representative with a horrible opinion (and authority in that matter). While in direct voting, this issue would have to break the majority boundary, which it often never will. (Direct democracies are quite conservative in the real world.)

An example is Donald Trump's treatment of problem with ICE. Even if large majority of Americans disagree with how ICE treats immigrants, lot of people approved Trump (for other reasons), and he pushed (because what a person he is) for bad policies in that matter.

Furthermore, if you actually use utilitarian morality (which is disputable), and calculate the mean value of the bad policy effect on the minority over all possible distributions of minority and agreement with a horrible policy towards said minority, then you will even get the result that the representation is objectively worse (in the probabilistic sense) than direct vote on the policy. It is because "tyranny of the minority" (selecting a wrong person as a representative) is, it turns out, overall a bigger issue than "tyranny of the majority" (the former can work against both minority and majority, the latter only against a minority).

As I said, I can't give references, but the above would certainly be a worth pursuit. There are some people in direct democracies (Switzerland) studying it, but it is rather small number of people.

Seems like democracy can be about concentrating power? At least when electing a president, that's a powerful position.

The essay is not against non-hierarchial organization, but against organizations that claim they are non-hierarchial as a result of 'structurelessness'.

Democracy is a formal system of governance - this essay isn't "anti-democratic," it is just against the absence of formal governing structures in groups (nor is it necessarily against informal structures either, but just against the idea that larger organizations should be exclusively governed in an implicit manner, and is in favor of the idea of raw accountability)

There are definitely hierarchies that form in practice. Celebrities and politicians control vastly more power than the average that a single person should have (even after the politician leaves office). Those in law enforcement and those who are able to pay for expensive lawyers enjoy privileges that are denied to others. That democracy doesn't call out the hierarchy that develops does not mean the fore mentioned hierarchy does not exist.

Well it is also clearly not structure-less.

It's not just the women's movement, any postmodern "leaderphobic" group of anti-heroes will operate under this adhocratic masking of power. It's still power, but it's the power-pill that palatable to their sensibilities, suitably masked. Marxist revolutions "of the peasants" pioneered this mass delusion of flattening.

But isn't this just gaslighting people? I mean "flat" is just disempowering existing power structures, to empower a secretive cabal, that pretends to rule "benevolently" by consensus by usurping the existing "oppressive evil" but ends up just becoming worse. Prove you can actually be better, then come back and tell me how to.

This article should have been called: "Afraid of Kings. How we tried and failed to get s*it done when we need to pander to everyone's leaderphobia."

Bottom line is, this is not new hat. It's old hat. What I'd say to the author is: It's an adhorcracy. Read Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. Then come back and tell me how to.

"Marxist revolutions 'of the peasants' pioneered this mass delusion of flattening."

Ironically the Bolshevik revolution didn't really start out this way. The Bolsheviks advocated for a strict disciplined party model - if you've ever read what Lenin wrote of the Left-communists and Anarchists, it was clear that he was very much not mindlessly "against" structure. Of course, this would all eventually be liquidated by Stalin and Mao.

"Flat" organizations rarely seek to deliberately create cabals and power cliques - they do inevitably occur, sure, but the call for flatness usually comes as a result of you not getting what you really want out of the system. Ulterior motives are not really at play; rather it is just a case of organic collapse.

On the topic of Lenin, one can read The state and revolution where he defends the need of a strong state in a communist regime, and this quote: "the people don't want freedom, they want power. Freedom ? What would they do with it ?!"

I had just reread "State and Revolution" a few months ago and do not remember this quote. Do you mind linking to me where you found it?

For what it's worth, most Marxists favor some form of democracy. The libertarian wing favors direct democracy while other tendencies favor different forms of representative democracy. Democracy is favored for exactly the reason that unclear power structures are a kind of oppression and that democracies broadly speaking offer decision making power to the people. A big difference between a Marxist and a liberal is in the analysis of the economic base of power which can either support or undermine democratic structures.

I think you’re making this more complex then it needs to be.

There will always be sociopaths.

Who ordered the word salad?

"A chair who asks, “Is everyone OK with choice A?” is going to get objections. But a chair who asks, “Can anyone not live with choice A?” is more likely to only hear from folks who think that choice A is impossible to engineer given some constraints."

It's funny - I've adopted a similar approach towards getting my kids to agree on something with each other. Instead of asking, "Should we do A or B or C?", and having one want A and the other dead-set on B, I ask which one do they definitely NOT want to do. Works pretty well for kids under 10...

There was a good podcast with a famous FBI negotiator, Chris Voss, who recommends if you want to sway someone, frame it as, "are you opposed to doing X?" rather than "should we do X?". People are more likely to agree with the former.

Would that still work after having worked in such an organisation for years, if the question is always phrased that way, or is it just an uncommon way of phrasing that works only so long as people are not yet thoroughly used to it?

Getting a shared mindset on what's at stake with a decision, regardless of the outcome, is the critical point.

This is a great way to understand if anything at all is at stake.

And for kids under two, you give two options and place the one you prefer second and emphasize it. Most of the kids agree. And then disagree. and then agree. and then disagree. and then you distract them with a snack and they happily go with whichever!

Assuming whatever you're trying to do is a good idea, my method is to just write a "heads-up"-type message and just go for it.

For example, "I'm going to do foo. If anyone has any concerns or anything, please let me know". This covers your ass, provides a discussion/feedback area, and lets you actually get things done without a lengthy bike-shedding process.

One important lesson I have learned in my career is that fortune favors the bold.

Oh man. This is one of those things that's great when done well and terrible when done poorly. Miss the head-up memo until the following day? Too late, the author's already a day into the work and you'd be a jerk to make them back all that out. If it happens often, you have to constantly monitor communication channels or risk missing an important "heads-up," since that's how serious decisions are being made now. In the middle of your own work, but see a 10-page design doc go by in slack or email? Better drop everything and read it well enough to form an opinion because every minute that goes by it becomes harder to object to that change.

But, as you say, it can be a great way to overcome bikeshedding. It's a good way to speed up a ponderous decision-making culture. It works.

Like a lot of organizational tricks, the line between use and abuse is something that simply requires judgement.

I've actually seen this go pathologically bad. Heads-up emails, sent out 14, 7, and 1 day in advance. Similar set of Slack messages.

Somehow literally nobody has noticed until the change lands, at which point everyone has an opinion.

We used to have an engineer who used this maneuver. He abused it because it was effective. We do have an issue on our team with engineers being indifferent to new ideas, and our manager loves consensus. Regardless, this engineer thought his ideas were always "good ideas." They weren't. He was eventually chewed out by our manager because he was becoming a passive-aggressive tyrant. He left the company soon after that.

Nevertheless it goes to show that fortune does favor the bold, but that fortune might be at another company.

The challenge, as with many things in life, is to strike a good balance. In this case between being bold and being a good team player at the same time.

What I have tried to do in the past is:

1) Take an idea out to a "proof of concept" stage, whether that is a white paper or an actual functioning demo but no further. People often need to see something, not just hear it.

2) Have a cosponsor or two to work with you. At first you may think that you are not getting full credit for your idea but I believe it shows more leadership than just striking out on your own. Plus you don't want your team to despise you like that aforementioned engineer.

3) Be humble, solicit feedback, and really listen to it!

Just because you use this tactic doesn't mean it will work. Just like anything, you have to have the talent and skill to pull it off. But if you trust your abilities and judgment, it's very effective.

I second the your conclusion and GP's. "Flat" / "self-organizing" / etc. teams seam prone to different, not fewer, pathologies than teams with explicit hierarchies.

I suspect that the two approaches are vulnerable to different, but specific, mixes of personalities.

Another way to put this is "bias for action"

Interesting that most comments deal with why flat structure doesn't work. Newsflash: of course there is always a boss. Someone needs to sign the paycheck after all. But the term "flat structure" usually refers to lack of middle management. And yes, that can work, and much better than traditional hierarchical organization. But it takes a great leader and capable employees to achieve that. I am lucky to work at such place and it rocks.

As for reaching consensus, I think the idea is great. Instead of seeking consensus try to find a few proponents and make sure nobody sees fundamental flaws... I think this is a perfect tradeoff between doing the right thing and moving fast.

Indeed, like any management strategy, it can be done poorly, inadvertently incentivizing people to form shadow organizations, or it can be done well, encouraging people to engage in good faith and reaping the promised benefits.

In practice, we get lumpy mix of good and bad implementations within organizations. It takes a lot, however, to overcome the near-term, personal-empire-building incentive. "This way is better for everyone" isn't going to cut it for a significant proportion of folks. If you bake it into the bones of your recruitment process and in your management training, there's a chance it'll be an authentic value of the org. And even then it's hard to shake the suspicion that this strategy only further rewards showhorses and marginalizes in-the-trenches doing-thankless-work types.

If you get an extraordinary manager, she can mitigate that, but your culture isn't robust if it relies on the extraordinary.

To bastardize Greenspun, any sufficiently large flat org contains an ad-hoc, informally-specified, bug-ridden, slow implementation of half of top-down org.


Regarding Greenspun I have to think about a colleague. He is a studied mathematician. So in the past 15 years he was working on a tool in Perl. Now he switched teams and is tasked to work on a Python problem. You don't hear about him for weeks besides he need to setup is development environment. Then he comes back and starts to code. It seems like he doesn't need to spend any time learning Python. You look into his code and also have no idea what's happening or why it's working.

What he basically did was implement his own programming language out of lists, dicts (hashtables), and functions, with class hierarchies, type checking, inheritance, etc. And the time he spent "setting up his system" was the time he needed to basically code his VM engine in Python instead of Perl, and then adapting his standard library files to the quirks of the underlying interpreter.

It was weird for me at first, but actually makes sense if you look at it mathematically. A math lover starts with defining zero, one and plus, right? So this is the only logical way to program for him. He doesn't even know what a VM or standard library is.

That's horrifying.

While I'm very much in favour of reminding everyone of Tyranny of Structurelessness and shadow hierarchies, the article is referring to a more IETF-like situation of voluntary collaboration. Here there are other sorts of shadow hierachy:

- Postel decentralisation: it used to be the case that a lot of important internet functionality was run through one person. Less so these days, but there will still be critical individuals.

- Fait accompli. This is really apparent in browsers, where the W3C inevitably lags actual practice and features tend to be introduced by deploying first and standardising later.

The article makes an early mistake in describing the IETF as "membership based". Nope. You cannot join or leave the IETF, it has no members, everybody who is interested can and should participate. It likewise confuses itself by insisting on calling the hum a "vote" even though it acknowledges that humming mustn't be used to try to enumerate support which is exactly the point of voting.

The IETF process works because of _what it's for_ and could not usefully be replicated in contentious political environments. Rough consensus and running code builds SMTP but it doesn't end the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

Because the IETF deliberately has no actual power, in the end the worst that can happen is you didn't agree anything and have to roll your own. You are "at" the IETF (many people never attend a physical meeting, and that's fine) to reach an agreement, and if you can't agree then too bad but it cannot stop you pressing on anyway.

This part of the model also worked for CA/B. CA/B initially exists as a meeting between two groups that both want something, the Certificate Authorities want a sales promotion tool and the Browser Vendors want better validation. But the CA/B meeting lived on long after that discussion bore fruit, because it turns out that _agreeing_ among yourselves is much better for everybody than if you all just do whatever you want and hope it works out.

I currently work within a profit-share-based flat-org. We have a rule to never exceed 12 people in company size. Sure there might be several of us that are "core" members and others that come and go throughout the years. So in a sense this seniority has translated to hierarchy to some degree.

We're all mostly web developers so the mind-share is important since our technologies move fast. Decision making doesn't cost us a lot of time because there aren't many big decisions to make. Our only producer and founder see client faces the most, but not exclusively. We do good work and rely solely on previous clients and referrals banging our doors down for more work – so we fortunately don't have to worry on that front or "crown someone" with biz dev because it's on autopilot for the most part (definitely over-simplifying the work it takes to get a client in the door but you get the picture).

One would assume that our profits would cap out eventually because we aren't scaling the labor-force, but we just keep getting better paying projects and have a few internal projects that provide some passive revenue – so we've been able to nearly double our revenue year-over-year for the last few years and is now stably seven figures.

Our big decisions come down to whether or not to hire a specialized dev for an upcoming scope or maybe what conference we attend that year. These decisions don't happen often but they happen openly and almost everyone is satisfied with the result almost all of the time. "Almost" is used unapologetically because we all know there's never been a perfect organization and that keeps everyone involved perfectly happy. We can't always be skipping around in the cotton candy fields and enjoying the sugar rain like the unicorns we truly are on the inside – so when we have to go to work we recognize that our pattern is better than the vast majority of agency-models here in NYC and are still delighted by our cumulative work experience day to day.

Flat-org is sometimes tossed around as if it projects itself as a silver bullet to organizational overhead. But anyone that cares to think clearly for a moment can recognize that any org structure has a place and time and that there will never be a one-size-fits-all solution to managing people.

That seems a like a great place to work.

It has been so far.

And we're hiring: https://www.sanctuary.computer so come see for yourself

It seems there's an ideology here (in the Gary Bernhardt sense: https://www.destroyallsoftware.com/talks/ideology), that flat organizations are impossible. Not just bad or inefficient, but literally cannot possibly happen, that it will always and forever immediately decay into a shadow oligarchy (which to be fair can happen).

Is it really that hard to take these people at their word, along with other companies without a stated strict and rigid hierarchy? Little wonder such organizations are hard to build, especially in a culture that holds the very notion in contempt.

The comments here have completely derailed. Remove "flat organization" from the post title, and the article is still valid. It's talking about consensus making which applies to any org structure.

Rough consensus is a really naive solution to making decisions. Being in a flat structure doesn't change the fact that different people have different requirements.

Just because you have more people "agreeing" to one particular idea doesn't make it the right idea.

Decision making is fraught with lack of knowledge and uncertainty. I favor rough consensus. Face it - you're never going to get the best or "right" solution in most cases or practically ever. It's good enough to get something that most people involved think will work. I emphasize "involved" because there are always individuals who don't really care about the decision at inception. They sometimes complain if the idea doesn't work out, but then you can point back to the discussion and tell them they had a time and place to give their input.

I feel exercise of decision making is mostly about having stakeholders be aware that a topic is being discussed and making a space for open discussion. The outcome of the decision is largely irrelevant.

As per the article. Rough consensus means everyone states "I can live with this solution". This is contrasted against the majority stating "I have no objections against this solution".

The idea is to not get bogged down in 'I think this is fine but X is better' discussions, and only deal with 'I think this is actually bad' discussions. Because any discussion is very long, and the first kind of objection is not severe enough to warrant a lot of discussion. See also the concept of 'bikeshed-ing'

Did you read the article? The whole point is not to seek agreement, but a few proponents (authors) and no fundamental flaws.

There should be someone designated to gather rough consensus and act upon it. Someone who leads the group. Perhaps they could be called a "leader"?

Yeah. I've never seen "flat leadership" work. Someone always becomes the leader just without the title.

Personally, I strongly prefer formalized structures over informal ones because then everyone is on the same page and the right person can be chosen to lead instead of it just being the one with the loudest voice.

People not being on the same page is a massive problem. It especially constrains the leader herself, because she can't make any strong, clear decisions without second-guessing whether she has the authority to do so.

An issue with that approach is you end up with leaders forced to approve/champion proposals they don't have enough expertise to fully grasp.

The 'designated' part is a blessing and a curse, I understand trying different systems with different failure modes.

I’ve only had about two years of software experience, but my (junior) opinion is that I’d prepare to spend even more of my brainpower on political cagematch fights than usual, as non-hierarchical means my “equals” are going to start trying to intercept credit, take lead on things, etc. and position themselves as de facto managers without me being able to tell them “fuck off, you’re not my manager.”

It is said, "Success has many parents. Failure is an orphan."

Before you get into cage matches, engage with your colleagues respectfully and maturely, politely declining suggestions you disagree with, before rushing to cuss them out.

This happens in organizations that aren't flat. They're dysfunctional, but they aren't flat.

This can be headed off by not rewarding bad behavior in peer reviews/manager reviews. In addition, such behavior could be used to lay off the offending person.

Not that I'm a fan of completely flat organizations.

It should be noted that the right way to be productive in a flattish organization is to influence people - this is no different in a big company from a small company.

It just seems too fashionable to talk about flat organizations nowadays. And, as many have pointed out, it's a bit ironic since organizations that claim to be flat tend not to be in practice. It's obnoxious when people claim that things are one way when, in fact, they are another.

It seems people have developed some kind of allergy to leader figures. In the US, this probably has a lot to do with the political situation. The current president is non other than the antithesis of a good leader --- and he's "on top", if not literally, then figuratively. Elsewhere, it's probably just cyclical. We're at the bottom of a leadership trough in history.

However, I can't count the number of times I've wished for a good leader lately. Call me mentally lazy or a conformist, but I want someone to give me a sense of direction and purpose. I want someone I feel like I can relate to and trust. Maybe I'm just the type that gets a lot out of mentoring relationships.

I guess it's just one of those things where you need to be the change you want to see in the world, eh?

Our hackerspace runs in a "flat manner".

In reality, there are people that are, in a Animal Farm sense, "more equal" than others.

It also means there's very little responsibility for our shared space, little responsibility for operations, other than what individuals take on.

It also means that avenues that we could do (work more with First Robotics, or review if what we're doing is the best for our mission) is shouted down by said "more equal" members.

Sadfully, to that end, changes that I believe would be better can't even be discussed. I've quit doing so, and just pay my dues and have my 3d printer there (bed size is 500mm x 500mm x 400mm) along with 3dp equipment. Admittedly, its a sad way for me to "interact", but I'm not one of the 'in' people...

I'd much prefer if we actually had some hierarchy. We don't need to have every position delineated, but a basic framework makes a ton of things clear. Right now, I can't even figure out who knows how to make a static IP in the hackerspace's dhcp table. Someone knows.

Would it work better if those "more equal" members were explicitly above the rest of you?

With a clear hierarchy you also have more accountability.

In my company (which isn't flat but like everywhere else there is a shadow hierarchy) we have a few people who have the ear of upper management and influence decisions but are never held responsible for bad decisions they influenced. Sometimes it's really infuriating to be blamed for doing stuff you thought was a bad idea while the people who wanted it that way get no blame but can put their name on successful projects.

Thats the rub: I don't think the rest of the org would go for that. If it was in a clear hierarchical vote, they wouldn't be the primary decision naysayers.

But because of the shadow hierarchy, they can continue with their actions. And those actions are primarily shooting ideas down or making some decisions for the whole org implicitly.

Whenever I hear about flat organizations the old quote comes to mind: "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others". It seems to me that all these orgs are a few people at the top that have a say and everybody else needs to survive through a lot of political skill.

I'm still looking for someone who works at Valve who can tell me the nuts and bolts logistics of how things actually work there. If there are no bosses, how are decisions made? How are raises actually determined? They publish their handbook but the logistical details aren't in there.

This is the best description of how Valve's "flat" structure works in practice:

>Some of Geldreich's comments are similar to comments Ellsworth made after being let go by Valve. "...There is actually a hidden layer of powerful management structure in the company and it felt a lot like high school," Ellsworth said in 2013. "There are popular kids that have acquired power in the company, then there's the trouble makers, and everyone in between."

>Geldreich similarly describes 'barons' who are in with the executive arm of the company in question, and a culture in which employees must curry favor with influential 'sponsors' to enjoy stability.

>At self-organizing firms you might be placed into a huge open office and given massive monitors. This is to normalize all communications and for more effective surveillance. Everything will be monitored either directly by a corporate arm employee, one of their barons or friends.July 16, 2018

Rest: https://www.pcgamer.com/ex-valve-employee-describes-ruthless...

There was a recent HN thread about this:


In short: power is held by insiders. It's really not all that different from a traditional hierarchical company, except without any job titles to tell newcomers who holds the power, and without the ability to hold managers responsible for the performance of their reports.

Quoting my self from a comment on another article https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=19468090#19468699 :

> AFAICT—and again, I'm just someone who read about this stuff in magazines as a child—this kind of management-theory/theory-of-the-firm study and experimentation really was much more prominent in the public eye twenty-five or more years ago, and has faded from popular awareness since; maybe because the work itself is less common, and less influential on institutions, nowadays too. I think that's a pity, because it seems relevant to some supposedly-new things you see generating excitement nowadays, especially in the vicinity of the tech industry. For example the whole Valve structureless-or-notionally-structureless-organisation effort is probably pretty well prefigured in the work of a generation of management consultants who looked at and tried out all kinds of institutional structures or absences of structure beside the traditional corporate model, generally in pursuit of much the same ends—more innovation, more amenability to change, better decision-making—and with similar mixed-to-disappointing results.

I find it weird to hear this kind of thing discussed without reference to previous research.

Have been thinking about this a lot lately. Not just decision making, but how to actually function in a healthy way in the day-to-day, in a flat org.

The place I work recently restructured from a more traditional hierarchical structure to SAFe - so the business has a well defined hierarchy, while engineering teams are completely flat. Almost 4 PI's on (~9 months) the promise of "self organizing teams" has not been realized.

We have a lot of communication problems, especially technical cross team communication. The development process wants to move much faster than the information actually flows, and if the information does actually flow what is communicated is wrong/incomplete. So what ends up happening often is that teams choose to operate in their own bubble.

Another issue is having common direction across all teams, while also allowing teams to operate autonomously. That common direction is missing so you end up with work from one team being very different from work by another team, and in a system that integrates a lot of different components it is awkward to navigate and work in.

The above, among other things, brings out "2nd order effects", like strained inter-team relations, to put it lightly (so there is an additional policing aspect to contend with there as well).

We have a System Architecture group (as defined by SAFe) but their time seems to be consumed by meetings and managing information flow and coordination across teams. There is also a "shadow hierarchy" (as others have mentioned thus far on this thread) that has emerged, and that helps a little, but it's really a poor solution.

Curious on anyone else's thoughts/experience here.

You're using some lingo I never saw before, what's a SAFe and a PI?

SAFe is the Scaled Agile Framework.


PI is program increment, a SAFe term

The Decred open source project approves spending on proposals based on stake holder vote, 60% yes for approval. https://dcrdata.decred.org shows $17m in the treasury currently. Votes are the final say. Current and past votes are viewable on https://proposals.decred.org . Its all open source, docs https://docs.decred.org/governance/politeia/overview/ code https://github.com/decred/politeia/ voting charts https://alpha.dcrdata.org/proposals

My work's been effectively operating as a flat organization for the last several months as our manager's been away on leave. It works for the most part as we all have our own jobs we do and all know what we should be doing. Until it doesn't work. There's no accountability with the schedule and a big communication problem between everybody. When things change, nobody really knows whats going on, when mistakes are made everybody's quick to point finger and problems take longer to solve. You really notice the lack of a manager when they're gone. All these little things that used to be taken care of now fall onto whoever happens to be around to deal with it and it's definitely been causing problems we never used to have before.

I find that places that harp on their "flat" organization tend to be places where the people in charge are just trying to defer the hard work of putting structure in place or just afraid of it for whatever reason.

In my experience flat organizations just try to keep everyone happy by making them think they have decisive input on things that they honestly shouldn't, past a certain point.

I find (completely anecdotally of course) that they don't scale, and I think what the writer (who ironically is a lead engineer at this supposedly flat organisation) is running into are the limitations of this flatness once it gets to a certain point ... I bet the next post will be something along the lines of

"Managers: a necessary evil"

I'm sure you've all worked some place that talked about 'meritocracy'. I'm sure most of you have worked some place where every time a promotion happens, people joke about "I thought you were already a <new job title>".

Years ago someone put me onto this phenomenon. Some people in a business have no trouble making decisions and others are hesitant for a myriad of reasons, from self doubt to not wanting to be responsible for the consequences, to just not liking being randomized. These people will line up behind folks who seem confident, and as this manager half-joked, all he really had to do was 'show up' and start making decisions and people would follow him.

The best description I've ever heard of this phenomenon, and describes my own experience, is that people are looking for and will line up behind someone they can trust. If you sound confident they will give you the benefit of the doubt. But if things go wrong and you don't jump on the problem, they get burned and they won't listen to you as much in the future, even if you are ostensibly in charge. Strong opinions loosely held, own your mistakes, be good at troubleshooting, talk to other teams (even knowing things an hour before everybody else makes you look a hell of a lot smarter), and people will defer to you even without a title. Because even if the boat goes down they know you'll go down with it instead of running away. People will take your advice, rank be damned.

That said, there are darker patterns here too, that could easily dominate in a 'flat' organization. Hoarding knowledge forces people to defer to you. There are obvious flavors of this that I don't need to explain, but here's one I see all the time but others miss: modelling systems to exactly reflect your mental processes (instead of a simplified version, see Brian Kernighan on debugging) means nobody else can work on it except for trivial things. This makes people feel stupid, and imposter syndrome stops them from fighting back.

As one of my bosses said, you should fire all of the 'indispensable' people because they are holding up progress. An earlier boss started a new project and wouldn't let a bunch of us work on it because we were 'too important' to the old project. I think maybe 2 of us figured out this was a trap and worked to hand off our stuff.

> At Doist we believe that open and sincere communication improves our decision-making process. That’s why we’ve built a culture that encourages feedback at all levels of decision-making

Who is 'we' and doesn't that get to the nub of the problem? It's highly unlikely that they held a group conference and decided what 'we at Doist' believe.

That 'we' actually refers to a small subset of leaders who decide, and it is 'flatness' and stagnation for the rest.

The article touts transparency as being the virtue that led them to a flat organization. I'd argue that _it's within an explicit hierarchy where transparency (e.g. who makes decision, who earns more, who gets promoted) actually flourishes_ with the lowest cost. As other commenters have pointed out, a hierarchy will emerge regardless, however, transparency will be subdued beneath secret cabals and handshakes.

A good resource to learn more about scaling flat self-organizing organizations is the book Reinventing Organizations. It's a curious mix of dreamy hippie philosophy interspersed with very practical examples of flat orgs and how they remain flat while still getting things done.

+1, I love RO. The Holacracy book is also a great read for an implementation of what a built-out Teal (though not quite flat) system can look like (and how it responds to objections like the ones seen in a lot of these comments). Of course, you have to unlearn all the stuff you learned about Holacracy from bad business mag articles....

In my experience, hierarchy (explicit/implicit) is necessary to conclude differences which are grey. In fact, there are cases where I have seen one side make their points logically enough that they are basically black & white and the other side sticking their guns saying "good points, but I think I would prefer to go ...". One might rightfully say the issue is deeper but we don't always have the luxury of choosing the most well fitting team. Somebody with the authority (granted/earned) has to step in and say "I have heard all sides and this is what we are going to do". Saves endless bickering over never ending e-mail chains.

Are there examples of flat organizations that have to meet make-or-break deadlines? I'm a little skeptical of a flat org's ability to hold itself accountable to externally-imposed deadlines/requirements/etc.

The answer is simple: Decide to leave the fantasy of flat organizations behind.


Flat organizations might work for a yet-to-be-discovered species. They do not work for humans. We can’t even have a picnic without leadership.

Answer: you get lucky by having a great flat organization. Great people and great cohesion.

Structure is a pricey insurance premium. You best case will never be as good, but neither will your worst be as bad.

My org uses a similar ranking method for hiring panels-- your feedback can be anywhere between "I'd quit if we hired the candidate" to "I'd quit if we don't hire this candidate" with a couple options in between, and no option for "maybe" or "I don't know". Of course people try to get around that by saying things like "soft yes"...

Offtopic: browsing the doist blog for the first time, plenty of valuable articles about productivity in there.

Easy, you simply make the decisions within the confines of the shadow hierarchy that exists within all flat organizations.

A slightly radical theory: flat organizations are set up to foster that intentionally.

Suppose your company has the idea that they want to identify and reward natural leaders and/or those who test limits and push through boundaries.

One way to do it is to tell people your organization is flat, then watch for the people who don't buy that and instead see an opportunity to take charge.

You create a situation with a little bit of an artificial and completely intentional power vacuum, then you watch who takes it upon themselves to step in and fill it. By holding a bit of a vacuum, you encourage these people to show themselves. (And I'm convinced management is actively watching to see who takes that bait.)

I'd say these are the most common responses: (1) never reach awareness that it's happening and continue to take flat at face value, (2) see it as opportunity and take advantage of it, and (3) see it as unnecessary game-playing and dislike it.

Whether 2 or 3 is better is an interesting question. It might separate the practical people from the idealists, or maybe it separates the self-interested from the more community-minded. I can see some of both, personally.

EDIT: I don't necessarily want to be completely dismissive of the idea. There's something to be said for creating situations that allow for people to stretch and try out new roles. That's how people develop. This is informal and stealthy, but it is a way to do that.

I'm glad you brought this up, even though I disagree with your analysis.

In my experience, in the power vacuum there are several types of people:

1. Those who are blind to it

2. Those who want power and have charisma

3. Those who want power and lack charisma

4. Those who do not want the responsibility that comes with the power, but take it to save the team

5. Those who do not want the responsibility and explicitly avoid it

The problem is that those five categorizations are independent of competence, in terms of technical skills but especially in terms of leadership skills. So if you do this sort of social experiment, what you get are people who want power regardless of competence.

Now if that's what you're looking for, then by all means, do it, but I'd bet that you're actually hoping to find the capable ones, not the power seeking ones.

I don't have a good answer for how to set up a self-sustaining organization that consistently surfaces excellent leaders, because I've never seen one, but I'm pretty sure the power vacuum won't do better.

You may be overestimating how much management is paying attention. As long as things are shipped reasonably close to time and no one is filing lawsuits most stay more concerned with their own goals than that of their staff.

You raise a good point. Flat probably doesn't always work this way. It wouldn't be a good idea to assume that every flat organization is doing what I describe.

While I'd personally argue that people development is an essential duty of management, they may not see it as important. Also, in some cases, management may just see it as a way to be less rigid.

I like your cynical take, but I'm not convinced it's actually the goal of management in all cases. I could see it drifting in that direction over time regardless. That said, some founders are actually idealists. I frequently discuss this topic with people who are aware of the invisible hierarchy problem and are interested in potential solutions. I think there are well-meaning attempts at this, even if they don't work perfectly.

> the invisible hierarchy problem

I'm not in favour of flat systems for exactly this reason. I think they try to solve the problem of bad leadership structurally, by simply pretending to abolish leadership. IMO, it would better be addressed personally - e.g. by investing in leadership training or vetting candidates for leadership roles more thoroughly.

I think some people, myself included, are coming at this with an ideological lense. The problem we want to solve isn't bad leadership, it's leadership in general. Hierarchy is a problem for us, and it's just as valid a problem to pick as human suffering or anything else. Coming at things from this angle, investing in leadership training is addressing a different problem entirely. I suspect that the "flat" organizations we've seen, such as Valve, have some pretty major shortcomings. I could see there being solutions to some of these shortcomings through technology and game-theory (decision making apps with specifics I don't know the details of), and I also think there might organizational structures somewhere between the traditional hierarchy and a flat structure where small hierarchies exist in a flat higher-level organization (I get how an interpretation of this can converge on the current higher-order ecosystem of corporations, but there are other directions you can take it).


Business schools use a framework of formal power (job title, authority, etc) and informal power (influence and likability).

The most effective organizations are the ones where the formal power structures are very close to informal ones. People know how to make decisions. Flat organizations end up being run by the loudest voices in the room.

Ironically, flat organizations with largely informal power structures are often slower to make decisions because one person can become a huge bottleneck on decision making without realizing it. It can also be culturally corrosive: informal structures encourage Machiavellian behavior and the most Machiavellian people tend to rise to the top — which creates a terrible work environment for everyone else.

"The most effective organizations are the ones where the formal power structures are very close to informal ones "

There's a nice parallel here to how parliamentary democracy arose. And conversely, there's no point having a chamber full of the people who you wish had power, if they don't have it.

I think there’s a more HN-relevant one in the way that founder-controlled companies seem to be capable of more growth. There’s not as much backstabbing and jockeying for power because everyone knows who the top dog is. The founder isn’t going to step down unless things go really well (everyone gets rich) or really poorly (everyone gets laid off) so you can’t stab them in the back and take their role. Founders can make decisions with a single vision — design by committee doesn’t produce innovation.

There tend to be problems when founders step back from the top of the formal power structure. Steve Jobs remains the best example I can think of; he wielded immense influence within Apple in the early 80s, but was ultimately a destructive presence once he no longer had formal power because he would go around his bosses to build his pet project (the original Macintosh) and created a corporate culture of distrust and deception. When he left, Apple fell apart culturally and really had no product vision until he rejoined a decade later and resumed the role of founder-CEO.

Thanks, now I have this image of Jobs as the chief narco, menacing some UN-approved banana-republic democracy which really only controls a little green zone in the capital...

I agree with your point but in the end the article was more about efficient decision making in engineering teams and less about flat organizations. Up-voted both the article and your comment :)

Reminds me about the stuff I've read about Valve. In theory, and maybe if you have strong healthy de facto leadership it could work. In practice it seems more like an excuse to dodge responsibility, leading to pretty toxic places to work - but maybe there's another side to it.


This is a common criticism of Valve's model, and it's fair to say that Valve's model isn't clearly obviously better, but those attack's on Valve don't make the case that the traditional hierarchical model, with its own well-known problems, is better.

>This is a common criticism of Valve's model, and it's fair to say that Valve's model isn't clearly obviously better, but those attack's on Valve don't make the case that the traditional hierarchical model, with its own well-known problems, is better.

I would say that the key difference is that in the traditional model I can learn about my potential bosses during the interview process. In the valve model I don't even know who my bosses will be during the interview process. As people like to say, interviews are a two way process.

Also getting a shitty task might be a lot better than getting no task and then getting criticised for lack of ambition.

If finding tasks is part of your job that might be a fair criticism.

Do you have a good link about Valve’s model and are they a socialist / EMPLOYEE OWNED organization?

Update: I read about it and no, they are basically anarcho syndicalist and overall owned by a enligtened/benevolent set of owners.

Jeri Ellsworth after she pulled the ripcord:


And in a company someone has the power to fire or promote you so there is explicit power in play. You can try to distribute it but people are social and clever so they’ll work around any blockers.

In my professional experience, many fiefdoms get created in the shadow hierarchy of flat orgs.

Align/get yourself in one that works and is healthy for your development and you can thrive. If not, then leave as quickly as you can. Just MHO.

In my experience, these shadow hierarchies exist in both flat and structured organizations. However, in structured organizations, there's the added challenge of figuring out how to navigate both the formal and shadow hierarchies simultaneously.

There are shadow power structures, but I don't think you are correct that they are necessarily hierarchical.

Isn't hierarchy intrinsic to power?

You can have webs of power, but I've found that organizations that work this way have a lot of dysfunction. That's not to say that a hierarchy can't be dysfunctional, but I do think that well constructed hierarchies without tyrants are preferable to their "webbed" equivalent, since webs are almost always inefficient and serve to mask a lot of the power for the sake of a superficial form of equality or equity.

I won't name names, but a company that I worked for was very web-like, which felt good at first because it seems more "fair" or democratic, but it lead to constant confusion, infighting, communication failures, etc., and I discovered that it lead to two forms of employees: hogs that managed to eat more from the trough through clever maneuvering, and "homer simpsons" who figured out they could be lazy and not suffer serious consequences since their title was nebulous and the chain of command was diffuse(an individual with poor performance didn't reflect that badly on a superior).

The team that I worked on functioned mostly as a web, and that actually worked well because we were only 6 people at most, but an entire company functioning as a web is a nightmare.

you assume that organizations with inofficial power webs only have official goals? The inofficial goals might strive very well while the official organisation struggles. For instance I assume even if McDonalds shops struggle financially McDonalds itself is still quite happily collecting rent from them.

Oh, I don't assume that, and you bring up a very good point that goes over most people's heads. In fact, it reminds me of how I learned that most organizations of appreciable size don't care much about efficiency. When things become more efficient, it not only rocks the boat, but people can be put out of work; once the cash-cow has been established, people want things to stay the same, lest they lose access to the udders of said cow. This is despite the fact that such an organization will publicly value "innovation", "creativity" and "hard work".

What's the hierarchical ordering of Congress, SCOTUS, and the White House?

The President appoints SCOTUS, so has the final say there. The critical fight was done by FDR: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Judicial_Procedures_Reform_Bil...

Congress and President have, as I understand it, a mutual veto - but in the case where both are controlled by the same party, they tend to defer to the party organisation, which in turn defers to the President. Where they don't, you get shutdowns.

The President already appointed the SCOTUS before FDR, per the Appointments Clause of the US Constitution.

President tends to dictate congress when they are popular and congress is of the same party. While there can be some push back, it will become costly come election time. SCOTUS has strongly defined limits on what they can do, but given they are made up of picks by the President and approved by congress the shape of the SCOTUS changes depending upon whom is in power when the existing members leave.

The President is generally immune to congress until they do something that gets enough congressional support for impeachment. This has proven extremely hard to do so far. The President also gets significant say over any issue that doesn't strongly unify congress.

Thus, for an issue that is popular in congress and unpopular with the President, but not popular enough in congress to override a veto, the hierarchy does President > Congress (a > b means a is above b). SCOTUS almost never gets involved when it comes to passing laws.

When it comes to an issue that is popular enough congress is willing to override a veto and which is popular enough with voters that congress going against the President on it isn't a threat, then congress > President.

I don't think anyone is claiming there is a simple hierarchy that consistently applies regardless of scenario. Even in a classical monarchy the hierarchy can shift for extreme enough scenarios.

There are very clear hierarchies in Congress (Speaker/Majority Leader, Majority Whip, Committee Chairs) and White House (President, Vice President, Cabinet). There is no power structure in SCOTUS: each of the justices is equal and has nobody to answer to.

There are likely shadow organizations in the Congress and White House with their own (unpublished) hierarchy, but probably not in the SCOTUS due to its size and the implicit potency inherent in being a Justice.

SCOTUS is a nearly-pure democracy. Every issue of substance is put to a vote, and everyone has freedom to act individually in anything not put to vote, along with ample funding for their desires (law clerks for work, and indivual pay for personal perks). (Namely, Q&A in session, and what they write in their opinions.) Their scope of power is sufficiently limited that favor-trading isn't very important. All that remains are the minor traditional formalities of when and where they meet and how they dress.

When your group grows beyond 9 people, that gets harder.

The internal politics are still interesting, though.

"The Brethren: Inside the Supreme Court" by Woodward and Armstrong looked (amongst other things) at why Nixon's new Chief Justice Warren Burger seemed unable to push the court in a more consistently conservative direction despite more conservative membership. Part of the conclusion was that he just wasn't that great at playing the internal political games required to stay in control.

Incidentally, the main source for that book was eventually revealed as one of the other Justices, Potter Stewart. It's a fascinating read.

Although Justices need not answer to anyone at all with perhaps the exception of defending themselves in their impeachment proceeding, the Chief does have some powers and duties, implicit ones such as designating authorship of a majority opinion when in the majority, and explicit ones such as administratively leading all of the Article II and III courts. The aclu's page is evenhanded and may be of interest. https://www.aclu.org/blog/speakeasy/role-chief-justice

SCOTUS > White House > Congress but I get your point.

Only by convention and precedent. FDR's threats to pack the court certainly influenced them and if implemented would have subverted them.

FDR couldn't implement that by himself, though; the bill had to be approved by Congress.

Convention and precedent (and tradition) are also forms of hierarchical power. Those who assert them in the course of making a decision exercise power over those who intend to deny them.

SCOTUS <> White House <> Congress

That's the 3 branches of government with its checks and balances.

Some of those checks and balances never get used.

I think it is a more practical relationship than something intrinsic. Power (or relative power, really) comes from consolidation and control of resources or agency. Hierarchy is a very efficient and scalable topology for command and control, helpful to manage such a consolidation.

But, other methods might be possible to wield power without hierarchy. An individual with massive wealth can consolidate financial power. They certainly depend on a system that enforces rules and protects financial interests, but can you really call that hierarchy? They might perform significant, world-changing transactions but they do not continue to control the assets once they are traded. It might be a hierarchical distribution in the "trickle-down" sense, but is not hierarchical control nor planning.

Or, if someone obtains some sort of scifi doomsday weapon and uses it to extort others, is that expressing hierarchy?

In my mind power is often innate, while hierarchy arises from exercising power. I wouldn't say there's a hierarchy between two entities until one begins to control the other

Guidelines | FAQ | Lists | API | Security | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact