Courtesy of unsplash.com and Cindy Kang

On Flat Structures and Maturity

I’m organizing my own list of Top 10 People Problems I’ve seen at game companies. After solidifying my top nine, I found myself with several options for the final Problem. I ran a very quick online survey asking folks to select from these choices. Here’s what came up from a combination of Twitter and Facebook connections:

Sorry the options got truncated in that chart. Here’s the full text of each:

Ineffective or just plain absent performance reviews. No follow through. Laborious review process. Reviews are too far apart. No actual impact on professional development.
Inability for studio leaders to hear and respond to comments and questions from all levels of the company. Only people high enough on the org chart are ever truly heard by those at the top, leaving out many voices.
Transparency in top level decision making. Nobody should be surprised by layoffs or pivots.
Nepotism. Cronyism. Call it what you will, if some people are treated differently because of who they know or who they go to lunch with, it’s wrong.
Absence of personal responsibility. Among leaders who aren’t at the apex, bring up a lingering widespread concern and every leader says “It’s out of my hands.”
Coherent interview and hiring plan. Not confronting well understood problems of bias. Not focusing on diversity. Not training interviewers. Not tracking data.
Physical work environment. Leaders separate from contributors, not co-locating feature team members. Segregation along any lines is almost always the wrong thing to do.
Immature companies trying to skip rungs on the evolutionary ladder with flat structures or holacratic processes.

The clear winner was company immaturity, specifically regarding flat structures. That won the number 10 slot, so I wanted to talk about it.

Cue the flashback music.

There’s this game company — a client of mine — that started off with a few dozen employees. The average age of the workforce was less than that of my favorite sweatshirt. The place ran on high-octane passion, had no management layer, and was super nimble, responding quickly to the creative muse of studio leadership.

The company met with success, and with success came growth. In a few years the headcount soared to well over 200. Studio leaders — still enamored with the Good Old Days of their flat structure — continued their manager-less ways until the beleaguered COO decided having more than 200 direct reports was no longer viable. Shortly thereafter about 20 of their most senior people were voluntold they were now managers, and the flatness of the org chart was replaced with a semblance of hierarchy.

Happily, there’s no horrific outcome here. This isn’t a cautionary “and then came the layoffs and studio closure” tale. This company did some things well, met with some foreseeable challenges, and addressed them as best they knew how. But I think it could’ve gone better. So I’ll use this example to lay out for you the questions I would ask if you came to me for advice on implementing (or moving away from) a “flat structure”. Along the way I’d like to think the implications of company maturity will just sort of emerge.

What’s the problem you’re trying to solve?

I’m a big believer that a 50% solution to a 100% understood problem is better than a 100% solution to a 50% understood problem. How do you know something needs to change? What are you hoping to get out of the experience? Hint: organizational change requires systems thinking. You may think you have a grasp on the core issue — “We want to remain nimble as a startup no matter how big we get” — but you might not easily see what else is tied to it (e.g. there’s an immutable overhead cost to having more people).

Take the above client story. Is it truly that you want the whole company to ensure agility through structurelessness, or is it that you want at least a subset of the workforce to be able to rapidly respond to R&D requests from certain leaders? Or if your goal is to provide a more egalitarian, everyone-has-a-voice environment…that’s laudable, but at a certain number of people you need a way to funnel and filter those voices. A 200-person town hall meeting isn’t a great way to make design decisions. Some things just don’t scale.

What examples could you learn from?

Google famously did away with engineering managers for a brief period. Chaos ensued so the managers returned. Supercell has implemented a system of self-directed project teams where senior leaders at the company primarily serve only as coaches. Medium is a company that didn’t care for traditional managerial roles so they switched to holacracy, then switched away years later. Why did these organizations make these moves? Did it work for them? Which parts of their stories are applicable to you?

Are your people prepared?

Changing the hierarchy of your company represents a significant upheaval in culture. People who have been here a while didn’t sign up for this new culture when they started. Are they OK with it? (they don’t have to be, just brace for impact) Have you communicated the problem you’re trying to solve so everyone knows why you’re making changes?

If you’re moving into a hierarchical structure, have you trained your new group of leaders adequately? Have you chosen them for their emotional intelligence (great idea) or for their tenure at the company (really, really bad idea in almost every instance)? Training leaders before you need them is an area where my client could’ve improved.

If you’re trying to flatten out by ditching managers, are employees mature enough to self-organize and demonstrate responsibility? How will communication channels change to keep everyone informed and working together without a manager? Who transmits vision? Tracks employee development? Encourages people?

All of these issues of preparation fall on the existing company leaders to solve. If you attempt to implement such a transition but folks aren’t ready, don’t blame your employees or The New System. You didn’t prepare them.

How will you know if the New System isn’t working?

I asked earlier how you knew something needed to change. Now picture the scenario where you’ve made a change. If the outcome was a complete dumpster fire, how would you know? Set some criteria for success and failure ahead of time so you don’t wind up as the “This is fine” dog.

Earlier I mentioned Medium, the company that switched to holacracy (non-manager environment) and then moved away from it. Why? Their leaders felt thusly: “…the system had begun to exert a small but persistent tax on both our effectiveness, and our sense of connection to each other.” They couldn’t have known this without some way to measure it. Surveys, perhaps. Or just constant informal communication throughout the organization. How will you find out if things aren’t working?

Have you given yourself enough time for the change to be effective?

There is a J curve to organizational change. Things will get worse before they get better. Folks will complain. Some may leave. Budget for this in advance so you don’t make a snap judgment after a few weeks and go back to the Old Way without giving change an opportunity.

Epilogue

Are there more questions to ask? Sure. But those are the first five I’d start with.

…aaaaand if you’re interested: yes, I’ll be working my way up through the rest of my Top 10 People Problems in the near future. Stay tuned for more articles like this.