The Triangle VS Square formation of Organizations

A thought bubble of why fewer people are at the top

Joel V Zachariah
Oct 21, 2018 · 6 min read

Disclaimer: The idea explained here may not be original, and I have not researched to see if study has already been done in this regard. Thus, kindly bear with me if I do not acknowledge the thought work of another individual. If you do know, please comment and I shall provide the relevant credit.


It is the end of Day 1 at PyCon India 2018 and nearing mid-night. Devdutt Shenoi is using his Python skills to compute the financial balance of expenditure bore by the three of us while Kurian Benoy is documenting his interview with the founder of FOSSASIA, Mario Behling. Just as I was about to get into another iteration of twitter feeds to suck out my time, Kurian asked me an interesting question that got me thinking:

The social cause club at our college has immense participation among first years, while the numbers among those of second years is less, and finally among third years is the least. Why is this the case? Why does interest to participate decrease as we go up the ladder?

At first, I thought it had to do with the fact that charity is not a cause that everyone would fight for whole heartedly. Though we all appreciate and encourage good causes, being an active participant always draws less people due to (self-declared) embarrassment.

But when I took a second look, I saw something else.

The club Kurian referred to has programs such as

— Home made food from students for the needy

— One day one ruppee collection

— Visiting orphanages/old age homes/special care homes

— Fund raising via programs and other initiatives

In the first year, we all are curious and participative. Social cause wins our hearts and we try our best to be effective contributors.

In the second year, we have seen it all and still appreciate the movement, but do not wish to do the same actions as the first years, as now we have transcended and so avoid contributing the same way. We also get preoccupied with other interests and in time, this becomes minor.

In the third year, it becomes much more magnified. Only a few still actively contribute to the proceedings of the club in leadership roles such as contacting shelter homes, arranging transportation means etc.

So as we go up the ladder, there are roles we feel we deserve but they are in limited quantities. It looks very much like a triangle configuration.

“architectural photography of red house” by Dmitri Popov on Unsplash

At the bottom level, we have several contributors.

At the layer above it, number of seats are less and so the roles change into controlling those beneath

This continues all the way to the top, where only a handful exists to see over all the operations.

This is a hierarchy indeed, like a tree where from one node we get many more nodes as we go deeper.

Well, there is no surprise here is it? All corporates round the globe have this structure of triangle. In fact, it is a pyramid, to take into the complexity and the need for a 3 dimensional view. A board of members decide what is best for the company, translates it into steps for the next layer beneath, and this goes on till the final layer. Over time, they unite and work to produce output.

But here is where things get interesting.

Why only triangular configuration? Is it not possible to have equal number of individuals at each layer? Like a Square structure?

For example, if there are 50 people at level 0, can there be a system where 50 people exist in level 1, all the way to 50 even at the top tier?

“white window glass” by Simone Hutsch on Unsplash

The answer may come easily — because the roles change from one tier to the next. You need only 10 managers to manage 50 individuals working on various projects. And maybe these 10 managers need 1 supervisor to ensure system is in control. When we try to assign 50 managers to 50 individuals, the following problems could happen:

  1. Too many people — too much clutter, so less work happens
  2. Inefficiency of resources and unsustainable structure
  3. Loss of value in job for the 50 managers as there work is diluted.
  4. To many overheads and repetitive works.

As a result, most organizations and systems go for the triangle configuration rather than the square configuration of work. Imagine a company with 10 CEO’s — they would end up dividing the work to conquer different terrains (COO, CMO, CTO, etc.)

Now, for the final thought wave of the night:

Can we make the square format as efficient as triangle format, if not better?

While it is evident how the square formation fails, it is worth thinking about organizations when the scale up. As the size increases, the requirements evolve and more roles open up, meaning growing demands to meet. The TV Show Silicon Valley actually ends in the fifth season when they realize how Pied Piper was going to scale and take a larger office space.

So do these again indicate the square formation playing a pivotal role? Let us take an example: If there are 50 individuals with 50 managers in the system, what if each individual was answerable to 5 different managers instead of one? In this case, the managers look at various parameters and provide guidance accordingly. The individual gets suggestions from 5 points and so decides what is the best augmentation to bring in the next week.

Though some might argue such a system is pressurizing, it is worth noting how despite being a square formation, there is no redundancy. Infact, what if these 50 managers had 50 supervisors above them who looked across various parameters? Now, we have a square formation.

Or do we? If you were paying attention, you would have realized that this was what actually happened:

Let me explain.

Traingle 1: 5 individuals monitored by 1 manager for a particular parameter (from the managers point of view)

Traingle 2: 5 managaers monitoring 1 individual to get full assessment (from the individuals point of view)

Unknowingly, we have made interlinked triangle formats which add up to give the square format. As this is a many to one relation in both ways, we have a complex network of triangles all giving us the false assumption of it being a square.

At the top most level, 50 CEO’s might actually be the 50 members of the board (maybe 50 is too much but this is just an example), each in charge of a part of the company’s performance. This is what happens when corporates like Google scale up. I assume over there, it is much more complex than simple triangle/pyramind and square/interlinked triangle configurations.


Had Kurian not asked me, I would not have pondered upon this idea. He did ask from where did I read about this; I thought of all this on the spot. Yet, most likely I read this somewhere previously, had this at the back of my subconscious mind and it evolved in time to this idea.

Anyway, these were some ideas I felt was worth documenting about. Thank you Kurian for making me think deep. Also Devdutt, hope you have balanced the transactions with your Python Script in a very fare manner ;)

Joel V Zachariah

Written by

A Junior finding the ropes and climbing the network | joelvzach@gmail.com

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