This is my personal account of joining a flat organisation.
I started my post grad. career in the British public sector which is pretty darn hierarchical. After about a decade, I escaped the hierarchy for the games industry — initially working as a GM for a certain MMORPG - but it wasn’t until I joined Futureplay that I realised my idealistic notions of how a company should work have actually manifested. Right here!
There are numerous companies out there who will tell you that they have a flat hierarchy.
“We run small, autonomous teams who can work fast and independently!”
I suspect that many of them are lying. Flat hierarchy? Yes, but you have to run things through this manager here who then will ask their boss who’ll have to okay it with the CEO because he really likes to keep a handle on things.
That is not a flat hierarchy.
When you can’t change a system that doesn’t work to a system that does work without having to get permission from someone, that’s not a flat hierarchy.
When you can’t implement a small, cost-free change without clearing it with someone? Also not a flat hierarchy.
When you are prevented from putting measures in place to support your colleagues through really tough times because you do not have the autonomy, that’s not just not a flat hierarchy. That’s bullshit.
So. What is a flat hierarchy?
- Is it some form of anarchy where everyone does as they please without thought of how it impacts others?
- Is it just a lack of structure?
- Who’s in charge, anyway?
Here’s how I found out!
I started working at Futureplay Games. It was weird. I knew I was joining a flat organisation but as it turns out, I’d never experienced it before.
Is it free-for-all chaos? No. Not at all.
Is there a lack of structure? Kinda. But I have a personality type that craves structure. If only so I know how to circumvent it…
Who’s in charge? We reach consensuses — generally. What happens when you can’t? Then it can get sticky: Who carries the can? Who’s ultimately responsible? We haven’t quite figured that out yet and we’ll need to as we grow. Watch this space.
What happens when you remove the hierarchy?
What is it that you take away?
The literal hierarchy. When you don’t allocate people to be in charge of other people, it doesn’t mean that you remove all responsibility. The way I see it, it doesn’t mean that I am answerable to no-one, doing whatever the hell I want. I instead become answerable to everyone who has a vested interest in what I’m doing.
The titles. I’m Nicola. Player Experience. Not Nicola, junior player experience or Nicola, PEx Lead. Or even Nicola, Goddess of Overly Reasonable Replies to Unreasonable People. (Actually, that last one has a nice ring to it…)
So what happens when people don’t have job titles that denote their status and experience?
It doesn’t belittle their status and experience and anyway, where do you go after you’ve hit Lord Vice President of Making Decisions? Senior Lord Vice President? SUPREME LORD VICE PRESIDENT. With the capslock. It all becomes very arbitrary and if I’m being disgustingly blunt — which I do enjoy — it’s all a bit of a circle jerk, isn’t it?
With a hierarchy, you’re used to someone calling the shots. It’s expected. If you’re a former manager (as I am) joining a flat hierarchy, it’s quite difficult to leave your ‘status’ behind. Titles are achievements. They prove your progression, they show you can be trusted to make certain decisions. You’ve earned the right. Right? And so a segue to the next bit…
It’s not just a flat hierarchy that makes the difference.
You don’t need chains of command, ego, insecurities (your own or anyone else’s), lack of trust, stress, or anything really that’s extraneous to the actual work you’re doing.
You don’t need a title. You don’t need ladders to climb — they’re an artificial construct that just introduce pointless competition or feelings of despair when you find yourself stuck on a rung for too long.
Or they give you a sense of entitlement that can be damned difficult to put down.
It’s not easy. I’ve realised that being a manager has given me a sense of entitlement and, previously, in a sense I guess it did entitle me. But that’s no use here.
Depending on how you look at a flat structure, we’re either all entitled or none of us are. Going with the latter perspective saves an awful lot of upset.
But only if everyone can manage it.
At Futureplay maybe we’re not quite there yet. As a fairly new employee, I’m certainly not there yet but I very much believe in where we’re heading.
Just as importantly, so do the people around me — and they demonstrate this daily in the way that they interact with each other and myself; openly, kindly, respectfully and patiently.
The way it looks to me is that when all the extra bits are removed, then you are left with your role minus the stress of dealing with pointless blockers and the office politics.
Removing hierarchy is like Kon Mari-ing your culture. You’re left with what you need to do your job, and what you need to be able do your job is trust (in yourself and others), support, a feeling of security, knowing what your role is within your company, and a clear idea of what it is that your company does and why:
We make mobile games.
We make mobile games and we want to do well in order to help make our world a better place.
We don’t do bullshit.