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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."

https://www.jofreeman.com/joreen/tyranny.htm






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.

https://www.toolshero.com/leadership/five-forms-of-power-fre...


All of human history in one comment.

Yep

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.

Darn!


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.


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.


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

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.

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:

https://blog.asana.com/2017/12/distributed-responsibility-en...


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.

https://www.jofreeman.com/joreen/trashing.htm


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.

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

https://medium.com/organizer-sandbox/liquid-democracy-true-d...


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.

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

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?



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