If you spend any time working in tech, “hierarchy” can quickly start to feel like a dirty word. Big name Silicon Valley companies and small startups alike have been shying away from grand titles and rigid structures for at least the last decade, and at times it can seem like even thinking about “management” or a “chain of command” could get you exiled to the margins forever.
Hierarchical org structures have been spurned for being too rigid, for encouraging bureaucratic complexity, for enabling terrible managers to make terrible decisions. Those concerns are valid and rooted in some truly egregious real-world examples, but they’re not the whole truth of hierarchies.
Hierarchies have existed in nearly every form of organized group in the history of the world and while they don’t always end up in an ideal state, there are reasons they not only exist, but persist. A hierarchy can be an effective way of bringing a large, unwieldy group to a semblance of order so that big, audacious goals can be achieved.
Considering big audacious goals are at the heart of a lot of tech work, perhaps we should be asking ourselves what causes bad hierarchies and how we can prevent that from happening, instead of running away from the concept entirely.
When “Flat” Falls Flat
The term “flat” has come into fashion recently as organizations seek to sweep away the issues of the past and create a new work order that leans on agile principles. Fail fast is the order of the day, and the only way to fail fast is to give individuals the power to make decisions at every level, regardless of title. “Change things, shake ’em up, and see what happens” is the beating heart of a flat organizational plan.
Ideally, in that scenario, the good flourishes and you can quickly pivot away from the bad. And with an emphasis is on autonomy and individual ownership, the appeal (especially for small-scale, startup organizations with limited capacity to support excess management) is strong. But is a flat structure really all it’s cracked up to be in the long run? Are formal leadership roles and a defined system of responsibility really so terrible?
“What we’ve come to realize is that when hierarchy feels terrible, it’s often the product of the personalities of people in leadership roles, not the roles or reporting relationships themselves,” says Erik von Stackelberg, Chief Design Officer at Myplanet.
We’ve had the good fortune to work with incredible clients through the years in the most rigid hierarchical environments around, and it never even comes close to as bad as the current wave of distaste makes it seem (the Fortune 500 still overwhelmingly favours formality, even if there are a few notable outliers skewing flat).
“We’ve learned that the hierarchical structure isn’t what makes the relationships and the teams we partner with good or bad — it’s having the right people in the right roles that makes it work,” notes Yashar Rassoulli, Chief Technology Officer at Myplanet.
“Our Agile DNA has always made us a bit shy of traditional management roles ,” adds Erik. “We feared a layered org structure could crush our culture. But as we grew, we encountered growing pains that made the need for more formalized leadership functions clear and we realized with the right people in those roles, the culture doesn’t need to change.”
The automatic association of hierarchy = inefficient and flat/autonomous = productive is a dangerous and often costly mindset to take. The world isn’t that black and white and neither should our org structures be.
As Evan Williams, co-founder of Twitter and Medium notes, “People think, ‘Freedom, no job description, everybody does everything, it’s totally flat, and that’s cool because we’re all down with those rules’, but actually that creates tons of anxiety and inefficiency, and various modes of dysfunction.”
Because as is almost always the case, it comes down to balance: hierarchy, done the right way by the right people, can not only coexist with cultures of autonomy, innovation, and personal growth, it can strengthen them. Hierarchy can live in harmony with agile processes — we promise — and we can all do better work when it does.
Differences, Debates, & Decisions
When you think about it, expecting everything to sort itself out nicely in a leaderless debate with intelligent, composed discussions amongst passionate peers is probably a bit idealistic. People differ. They will view each problem and potential solution with their own biases. And it can be hard to find consensus on all things (and incredibly time-consuming to attempt it).
That isn’t to say discord and differences of opinion shouldn’t be discussed — they absolutely should be — but when push comes to shove, there needs to be a clear understanding of who will make the final call if a consensus can’t be reached. Having those clear roles and responsibilities in place mean you’ve got a fallback solution that can save time, money, and perhaps most importantly, team relationships.
At Myplanet, we emphasize autonomy over execution and accountability for outcomes. That means there is a lot of freedom in how the work gets done, but also that someone owns the end results, so if issues arise, there’s a clear path to solving them.
Transparency Over Hierarchy
Accountability over outcomes doesn’t mean one person runs roughshod over everyone else. A final decision isn’t ever a decree from on high, but rather a necessary measure to keep things rolling for the sake of the project. But the only way to facilitate that through open-communication and a shared understanding of all aspects of the work.
A hierarchy becomes a problem when it feels too much like a hierarchy, like people in “senior” roles are the only ones with authority and information. But that’s not how those roles should operate. Senior roles, when executed properly, create a culture of transparency with open communication — from corporate strategy to feedback to idea exchange — that is indifferent to status.
As Erik notes, “Staff should always feel like they can raise concerns or challenges to anyone in the organization. It’s our responsibility as leaders to be open to this. From my experience there’s nothing worse than feeling that you can’t raise a concern with someone because of their decision-making power.”
When everyone is on the same page and understands why decisions are being made the way they are, it’s hard for hierarchy to get in the way of a high-functioning team.
“We try to have individuals accountable to their teams and to our customers, as classical Agile teaches, but we’ve also realized accountability to more formal leadership roles like Associate Directors and Practice Leads is important when it’s done right, because often team members do crave a sense of oversight and a source of more formal feedback,” says Erik.
Doing this right doesn’t mean leadership is constantly watching, prescribing, and approving — “managing” in the way we typically think of it. Instead, the emphasis is on asking the right questions at the right times, offering guidance when it makes sense to, and ultimately helping their teams succeed without their constant influence and oversight. Much like “hierarchy”, the word “manager” might be verboten in the startup world, but accountability and good leadership shouldn’t be.
When a manager or director is doing their job right, they ensure everyone reports to their peers and to their customers, not just to their direct supervisor. Collaboration requires trust among all parties, and that trust is only earned by demonstrating responsibility for actions. Smart leaders know that there is no real excellence without engagement, dependability, ownership, and innovation at the level of the independent contributor. How those qualities are perceived and delivered to your teammates and your customers can be the difference between good products and great products.
Good Management Facilitates Great Feedback
Feedback is another area where having some role distinction can be a huge benefit. “Every quarter, peers review each other,” says Yashar Rassoulli, Chief Technology Officer at Myplanet. “We give everyone the chance to provide input for everyone else — on both hard skills and soft skills — that they work with. Then we roll the information up and synthesize the feedback into clear themes before delivering it back to the team member in a meaningful, constructive, and action-oriented way.”
Without someone in an overseer role, feedback couldn’t be given in this all-encompassing way. And for colleagues, it’s an incredibly effective method for both giving and receiving feedback. “It gives people an overall picture and the ability to see where to improve based on themes and feedback from the team as a whole.”
Having those more senior, overseer roles offers the opportunity for a wider lens on teams and individuals. This allows for cross-functional initiatives — like comprehensive peer reviews — to be executed and applied effectively, ultimately feeding the growth of those participating in the process.
A flat organization with carefully applied hierarchical elements has the ability to un-clutter channels for growth and can make for a better organization. We lived through some growing pains ourselves as we scaled from a 15 person startup to the 100+ entity we are today. We know firsthand that once a company is beyond the tiny startup stage, some specialization at the role level can have a big impact on operational efficiencies.
“In today’s highly dynamic and competitive marketplace, the only true advantage for both companies and individuals is an ability to learn quickly and adapt, and that stems more from areas of specialization than ever before. An organization’s structure must support this ability for the dynamic creation of roles that are both focused and specialized to directly impact a businesses value drivers. Neither a completely flat, unfocused structure nor the one tied to the traditional models of command and control will allow for a ‘learning organization’ (as Peter Senge calls it in his book, The Fifth Discipline) to emerge,” adds Yashar.
The difference between struggling teams with poor plan execution and stellar teams with effective agile execution is a balanced organizational structure. Hierarchy isn’t an inherently bad thing. But it’s only effective if done properly.
Where do you stand on the flat-hierarchy spectrum? We’d love to hear your thoughts— let us know in the comments below! And be sure to 👏 and share as well.