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Flat hierarchy: what it means in practice - Clarasys

Traditional bureaucratic hierarchies The bureaucratic hierarchy of traditional organisations...

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Traditional bureaucratic hierarchies

The bureaucratic hierarchy of traditional organisations assumes that one or a few people know best. While this type of structure can often be easier to run because there is a strict chain of command, it can also impede decision-making and creativity.

The command and control approach implies that people cannot be trusted to do the right thing without referring upwards and there is little incentive to be innovative.

This was the experience our three founders, Matt, Claudia, and Chris, had at command and control businesses and it was why they wanted to set up a firm with a flat hierarchy. The company they envisioned would challenge the status quo by welcoming free thinkers and people who didn’t want to be just a number. They believed the benefits would include accelerated personal growth, strong teamwork, unexpected outcomes, and reduced competition between peers.

Can everyone be equal?

It might seem utopic to believe that a flat hierarchy where people in a firm are equals despite having a wide range of experience can be successful, but it’s possible. For this type of structure to succeed, there needs to be a collaborative culture, equality of opportunity, and a commitment to training, in order to negate hierarchical behaviour.

Hierarchical behaviours and bureaucracy can be kept at bay by ensuring the most senior people never take control of projects. For example, when Matt, Claudia, or Chris were on a project, their first question was always: “What do you need from me?” instead of dictating how things should be done. That was an early example of flat hierarchy in action at Clarasys, and it meant that less experienced people were able to grow quickly because their ideas were listened to.

We also worked hard to banish any fear of failure by celebrating things that went wrong and learning from our mistakes so that people could move out of their comfort zones and innovate.

A flat hierarchy isn’t without its disadvantages. There can be a lack of clarity around a person’s progression, something that is desirable in our generation of workers. One way to get around this is by introducing grades and decoupling pay and promotions. By doing this, there is no incentive to be competitive.

Flat hierarchy benefits

A non-hierarchical structure promotes a feedback culture

Regardless of experience, everyone is encouraged to seek and give feedback. This allows for a two-way conversation about how we can improve by identifying the areas we need to work on. At Clarasys, less experienced consultants give feedback to senior colleagues because we understand that we never stop learning.

Accelerates personal growth and promotes teamwork and collaboration

Personal growth accelerates when people aren’t suppressed by a hierarchical structure. We encourage people to gain experience on complex projects. There is an emphasis on teamwork and collaboration which means that when things go wrong, as they sometimes do, we work on the solution together – it’s never down to the most experienced person to fix things. This also means people gain experience faster and can, in time, lead a team. Everyone wins in this environment – experienced people aren’t under immense pressure and enjoy helping and watching less experienced people grow.

Flat structures enable different outcomes

When people are given the space to work on a solution together, there are different outcomes. This is very different from a hierarchical structure where every decision goes up through the pyramid and the most influential voices are always the same. When we learn in a hierarchy, we are always influenced by the same set of biases.

Reduces competition between people

We encourage people not to be competitive with one another. Validation doesn’t come from a title. Instead, it comes through feedback, pay reviews, and conversations with our internal coaches. Every person at Clarasys has their own coach who has been through training to be able to provide great support to their coachees, whether that be on a work or personal note. Having a coach is like having an office cheerleader; someone who helps you shine and be the best version of yourself. Pay and grade are decoupled at Clarasys which means there is no financial incentive to win promotions.

Speeds up processes

Problems are fixed quickly because the people who are closest to the issue have the power to make decisions. In a hierarchical structure, there are layers of governance to go through before a solution is found.

Promotes trust

We are trusted to make the right choice. If we don’t know the answer ourselves, we draw on other people’s experiences to inform our decision.

Increases personal ownership

Because we are peers, we take ownership of our day-to-day activities and personal development. At Clarasys, we encourage everyone to take responsibility.

Equality of opportunity

There is equality of opportunity at Clarasys and less experienced staff are included in complex projects. Coach is the only role that requires a person to be at a certain grade.

Disadvantages of having a flat hierarchy

Taking responsibility early on

Taking responsibility early in your career means you can feel uncomfortable at a less experienced level. Here, we mitigate this by putting scaffolding around people in the form of coaches and experienced staff to advise.

Balancing business needs

There is only so much a company vision and strategy can do to unite people and it is incumbent on everyone to make sure we are all pulling in the right direction.

It is great for an individual to be able to choose their day-to-day activities, but it can mean sometimes we try to achieve too much at once. The key is finding the right balance where the entire business operates in harmony.

Increased risk of burnout

A flat hierarchy needs a supportive environment. People will burn out if they are thrown in at the deep end.

Conclusion

Having a flat hierarchy is not always plain sailing, but the key is to identify problems quickly and work to fix them. Flat hierarchical structures allow a people-centric culture offering empowerment and autonomy for individual employees and teams within your business.

If you’re interested in learning more about how to operate with a flat hierarchy, please get in touch. If you’d like to join us, check out our current vacancies here.

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