How to Flatten Your Organizational Hierarchy Now
Startups are inherently small, which means a few team members work together in a tiny space. The result is that pitching ideas is as simple as turning to the person next to you and saying, “Hey, let’s try this approach!”
But as startups grow, from one tiny office to a sea of cubicles, this expansion limits access. Preserving this flatness and openness can be a struggle. Before you know it, your small business has morphed into a larger company with a rigid management structure.
Holocracy -- the flat management structure followed by Zappos -- doesn’t make sense for every business. But if you want to preserve a startup ethos at your business (or create one), then adopting a less extreme version of a flatter organizational hierarchy can help.
What's more, you don’t have to throw out the entire organizatioin chart in order to achieve this goal. By simply bringing a new focus to internal communications, you can uncover institutional blockages hindering innovations you may never have realized even existed.
Here are two approaches to follow, depending on whether you’re scaling a startup or working backward to adopt a startup ethos at your larger business:
Scaling up? Preserve open communication structures.
The problem: Nearly half of all employees say that they’re disengaged do to a lack of communication between staff and management. Preserving an open communication structure as your business scales up is essential to supporting a continued sense of ownership in company success and engagement.
However, as your company grows, it’s not practical for your founder or even the executive team to follow an “open-door policy” throughout the workday. Constant interruptions mean that nothing gets accomplished. So, how can you protect this free flow of ideas without hindering productivity?
The solution: Start by protecting project ownership. As your company scales in size, contributions can range from huge changes to microscopic details. But employees may lose their drive to innovate because there’s no urgency. A dangerous workplace ethos can set in, then, that says, “Nothing I do is any different from everyone else, so why try?”
Beat this disconnection by fostering a strong sense of ownership, through transparency and an “anything is possible” mentality. Information is power, and individuals with limited information can feel powerless and disconnected. Don’t keep your employees in the dark this way: They can’t connect the dots if they lack access to all the dots!
To connect them, consider technology solutions not dependent on email. Email inherently cuts people out of the conversation; project-management tools like Asana (and a few others I’ll mention later) bring everyone in. Inclusivity drives fluid communication, ownership and innovation.
Flattening a larger company? Identify and remove blockages.
The problem: Creating a startup mentality at a larger company can be tricky. Startup culture is about more than just a “hip” millennial-friendly workspace complete with a foosball table, beanbag chairs and a permanent “casual Friday” dress code. A better approach is to identify blocked communication channels and remove these blockages.
At smaller companies, employees can feel that they’re making a difference. Ideas are incorporated overnight into developing products or services. At larger companies, ideas have to travel up and down the chain of command, getting watered down or just flat-out lost in translation. Rigid management structures kill innovation potential.
The solution: Start with a detailed organization chart of how your company is currently structured (I’m a fan of Creately for sketching out quick charts online) and then map out locations along the chart where communications break down. Are the marketing team’s ideas getting stuck at the VP level because the ideas got lost in a sea of email? Did IT have a great idea for sales but no clear pathway for sharing this idea?
Next, consider how you can better facilitate internal dialogue. Pat Sullivan recommends detoxing from email addiction, and I definitely agree. In a fast-moving business environment, email slows down project management and innovation every time. Consider a radical structure reorganization that creates “teams of teams” (e.g., a project team with a two members each from marketing, sales and IT, plus a project leader), rather than siloed teams stuck in a single department. I’m a fan of Asana, Wrike and Zoho Projects for streamlined collaboration and open communication.
Bottom line: Remember, good communication flows two ways. If you want to encourage sharing, input and dialogue, then the folks at the top need to reward these behaviors. Re-think the organization chart by identifying and removing communication blockages. Get employee buy-in. Foster transparency by making objectives and goals public for the entire company.
And don’t be afraid to completely rethink your team structure of project-management platforms. You don’t have to be as extreme as Zappos, but if you want to preserve a startup ethos at your business (or create one), you have to be willing to experiment.