The Platte River in my home state of Nebraska has famously been described as “a mile wide and an inch deep.” This incredibly flat, placid river gives the state its name, in fact: “Nebraska” means “flat water” in the tongue of the indigenous Otoe people. All the same, the Platte has a powerful current that discharges an average of 7,000 cubic feet per second into the Missouri River. The Platte may be shallow, but its currents run deep.

Many contemporary workplaces — particularly creative enterprises — have chosen structures that use a flattened hierarchy designed to allow for collaborative work, to encourage creative thinking, and to be more meritocratic. Like the Platte, these structures may be flat, but there are strong currents running under the surface that should not be underestimated.

In my experience, deciding to have a flat organization is easy. Actually becoming flat is quite another thing. First, those who actually hold the power (the owners, for example) need to act as if they don’t, flexing every humility muscle they have in the interest of creating that perfect petri dish where great ideas will multiply. But it isn’t only the leaders who must adjust their thinking. Indeed, those leaders will need to act as stewards of the culture they have created, weeding the garden and plucking hierarchy sprouts as they pop up in the service of changing cultural patterns from the inside out. (It can’t be from the top-down any longer!)

Organizational Currencies

One way to think about how to manage a high-functioning organization such as this is to keep an eye on the “currencies” of the culture. Like the currents of a river, those things that employees trade for their advantage are the hidden motion below the flat surface, and can sometimes show up as the shadow side of an organization’s culture. Take information as an example: in a flattened hierarchy, information should generally be accessible to seasoned veterans and greenhorns alike. In order to function as relative equals in their contribution to the organization, they must both have access to the same information about the organization’s inputs, performance and outputs. At the same time, that means they probably need to be able to see information about one another’s performance. If the goal is a collaborative workplace, they need to know when to help one another.

Ah, but you can see the rub there, can’t you? That’s a pretty uncomfortable proposition for a lot of people, having everybody able to see their business. So a fairly natural reaction, over time, is for firewalls to develop that sequester information. Certain individuals are charged with being the keepers of the data, and it doesn’t take long for them to figure out that holding information that others don’t have gives them either a psychological or an actual advantage, which begets a cycle of the hoarding of information.

In other words, because information has been given some status as a currency, the trading of that currency can be used to construct fiefdoms and other sub-cultural hierarchies.

I don’t mean to suggest that this happens consciously, or at least not all of the time. Rather, I have found that people have a tendency to fall into these patterns whether they intend to or not. Hierarchies simply seem to be more comfortable for many people.

So how to manage for this? Neutralize the power of an organizational currency by deliberately devaluing it.

Take the scenario above, for example: if employees begin to hoard information as a way to form factions or build hierarchies, the solution is to take away the power that information has as a currency. There are different ways to devalue a currency: you could flood the market with cash by distributing information more broadly. Or, you could change its value on the market by rewarding the sharing of information — effectively changing its trading value by making it more valuable to spend than to hoard.

Maintaining Flatness

If your organization is working to either flatten its structure, or to maintain the flatness it has, here are three actions you can take to improve the effectiveness of your structure using this thinking:

  1. Inventory: Currencies are neutral – they can help or hinder. Your task is to identify those that hinder, so start by creating a list of all your organizational currencies you can think of. Think about those things that employees can trade or hoard. Examples include information, attention, time, and relationships with clients.
  2. Identify: Once you have your big list, key in on those whose use might be contributing to struggles with your organizational structure. Ask yourself this for each of your listed currencies: “If I had this and didn’t share it, would that help me but hurt the organization?” Ask the inverse, too: “If I had this and gave it away too freely, would it help me but hurt the organization?” If you can answer “yes” to either question, there’s a good chance that you have uncovered a currency that can be a challenge to your flat organization by allowing for sub-cultural hierarchies or power plays between team members.
  3. Neutralize: Chances are that you will identify at least one or two bits of currency that might cause trouble in your organization. Your job now is to neutralize them. I don’t necessarily mean eliminate — remember: currencies are neutral. What you want to do is restore balance to make them neutral factors once again, allowing space for collaboration to flourish. There are at least three ways to attack a rogue currency:

A. Flood the market with “cash.” For example, if the currency in question is client relationships, implement a Client Relationship Management system that democratizes leads and adds transparency to business development.

B. Make the currency more valuable to trade than hoard. If your particular struggle is around time, new team members might be challenged to get valuable mentoring time from more senior team members. If you institute a reward or recognition system for mentoring, you may be able to support that need while making the transaction worthwhile for everybody.

C. Banish the currency. This is, admittedly, the nuclear option. It’s very heavy-handed, and generally at odds with the spirit of a flat organization. But sometimes, there’s a weed so pernicious that you need to pull it out entirely, including its root. This might mean disconnecting a particular measure from individuals in your reporting, effectively removing the data connection that is being leveraged.

Ultimately, a flat organization is a set of relationships between theoretically equal persons. Like any relationship, finding balance will take humility, grace and hard work from all involved. However, if you can find honest answers and choose targeted solutions to the questions above, you can keep your organization flowing by smoothing out those currents that cause turbulence.

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