"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.