In recent years, many of the startup companies’ operations are based on a flat organizational structure, a self-directed approach, and empowerment. At Silicon Mountain, similar to many other startup businesses, we embrace “self-direction”, which has brought us benefits such as agility, speed of learning, and resilience. But when the company grows and scales up, how can we develop new strategies and coordination mechanisms, while also retaining our culture and values?
On paper the flat structure sounds great! Why do we need managers and titles? Who needs structure? We’re all adults here, right?!? I am sure experts might argue that “flat” businesses have not matured past the flat structure and are difficult to scale and acquire or even that this structure only works for small companies. Growth does demand coordination and communication, but such a need hurts autonomy and might lead to a breakdown of the flat structure. Moreover, self-direction must be encouraged and celebrated to work effectively.
So, the question remains: how do you implement a structure that will help a business organize for the future? Do we remain flat or turn into a tall structure organization? Whilst the answer to this question remains indefinite and there is no right or wrong answer, we can take a look and learn from companies that have managed to scale despite their flat structure (for example: Square Space, Gore, Valve, Nike, etc.)
Maintain Culture During Growth: For a flat company to scale, it must maintain the culture that made it successful. When a company expands from 15 employees to 100, it is easy to lose sight of your narrative. That story has to be retold creatively to new employees to help them integrate seamlessly into the momentum that led to the growth opportunity.
Build a dynamic network of teams to tackle problems: In order for organizations to face the emerging and fast-moving changes in their industries, they need to be able to dissolve agile teams quickly, easily, and effectively, while requiring minimal input or resources from leadership.
Instead of hierarchical silos, teams are focused on action and connected around common goals. Teams concentrate on feedback loops, which are critical for organizational flexibility and evolution.
Empower the right people: The best organizational structure is designed to ensure that critical people close to the customer or the service have a voice and are heard. These people are close to where value is created or where risks are born. By being empowered to push back, to filter and select, they are put in control. It allows the flexible team to move fast, try out new ideas, and make quick decisions. But, it also implies being responsible for making the product or service a success: developing a product that makes a great difference for its users and the company.
Consider automation to fulfill communication gaps: In a flat structure, information is vital, and it must flow between different departments. Employees need to know what they need to do to get their job done. Artificial intelligence can play a powerful role in facilitating transparency and communication. Automated systems are critical to flat organizational structures because they not only enhance dialogue and transparency but can also identify core competencies and organizational weaknesses.
Take transparency seriously: The ability to make quick decisions is great until someone disagrees. When a disagreement arises or when an employee challenges another employee’s decision, there must be transparency in decision-making to sufficiently explain why such a decision was made. While it may seem like a lot of work to implement an extensive transparency model, it may be the best solution to helping businesses stay true to themselves while maintaining their identity.
In the end, it’s not about the company’s structure, it’s about the people and the team. Self-directed companies that succeed while growing are those that invest in learning and in one another, celebrate successes, learn from failures, and succeed as a team and fail as a team.