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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
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.
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
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.
It avoids the politics of democratic selection, while decentralizing the power dynamics enough that tyranny is more-or-less impossible.
> 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.
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.
It's unique .. and not for most people probably.
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.
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)
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".
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.
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.
I believe most people would appreciate if they weren't infantilized and forced to defer to some dysfunctional hierarchy.
"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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 when wrong decisions are being made too often, formal structure helps to hold leaders accountable for their decisions.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
Basically I recognise the problems described in the article.
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.
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.
Just because you don't call out the structure doesn't mean there isn't one.
If you're speaking generally, who is "a person" you are referring to here? The person who writes about the structurelessness?
So I'd be reluctant to assume the argument for structure is motived by personal ambition.
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.
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...
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.
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.
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 first decides who the company is. The second can decide whether there is a company.
Identity and existence are fairly fundamental things.
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.
> 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.
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.
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.
Flat hierarchies are not necessarily structureless and need not suffer from the drawbacks described above.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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).
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
There will always be sociopaths.
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...
This is a great way to understand if anything at all is at stake.
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.
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.
Somehow literally nobody has noticed until the change lands, at which point everyone has an opinion.
Nevertheless it goes to show that fortune does favor the bold, but that fortune might be at another company.
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!
I suspect that the two approaches are vulnerable to different, but specific, mixes of personalities.
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.
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.
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.
- 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 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.
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.
And we're hiring: https://www.sanctuary.computer so come see for yourself
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.
Just because you have more people "agreeing" to one particular idea doesn't make it the right idea.
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.
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'
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.
The 'designated' part is a blessing and a curse, I understand trying different systems with different failure modes.
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.
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 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?
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.
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.
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.
>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
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.
> 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.
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.
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"
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.
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.
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.
Structure is a pricey insurance premium. You best case will never be as good, but neither will your worst be as bad.
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.
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.
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'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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Update: I read about it and no, they are basically anarcho syndicalist and overall owned by a enligtened/benevolent set of owners.
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.
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.
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 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 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.
When your group grows beyond 9 people, that gets harder.
"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.
That's the 3 branches of government with its checks and balances.
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?