Lean not flat organizational structures are the way to self organization

The article was first published on linkedin – https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/lean-flat-organizational-structures-way-self-hrishikesh-karekar/

Also published on : https://www.bbntimes.com/en/technology/lean-organizational-structures-are-the-way-to-self-organization

Agile is the new silver bullet, the savior for many a project in crisis. The Agile manifesto lays great emphasis on self organization when one of the principles states – The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams. Indeed, a motivated team that can self organize itself will do wonders. One of the key impediments often associated with self organization are organizational hierarchies and managers. Indeed bureaucracies and hierarchies often tend to slow down decision making critical to the essence of agile. They can also stifle innovation. As a result, many companies embarking on agile journeys also set themselves targets for flattening their organizational structures. Their pursuit of agility needs self organization which goes via flattening organisational structures.

While getting rid of the “flab” and redundant hierarchies is necessary, more often what we see is a senseless flattening out of structures and perception buildup of managers as the “evil guy”. Get rid of all the managers and system will manage itself is the silver bullet being sold to executives. Will it really help? Is that the most effective approach? Is that the most economical approach?

Flatter hierarchies are not an easy pursuit either, especially in organizations that have been operating for a long time. From time immemorial, kings and queens have ruled us. Even today in the so called democratic first world, the engagement of a prince makes headlines and people follow closely the families of their presidents and prime ministers. Hierarchy is hardwired in many of us. People have an innate need to look up to someone higher up. Someone that has more power and influence than them and can be approached when the need arises. Is this the reason, that when groups start to become larger, hierarchies emerge? They may not be always formal, drawn up on an organizational chart. However, decision making and accountability does see a definite hierarchical pattern.

Then there is economics driven by scarcity of resources. In a utopian society with unlimited resources at its disposal, where the privileges and lifestyle will be equal for everyone regardless of the contribution they make, probably a need for hierarchy would vanish. However, economics ends up building a pyramid of benefits – those at the bottom receiving less than at the top. So, climbing “up the ladder” is an aspiration that cannot be ignored. Ladder is hierarchical.

Aristotle said, “Man is by nature a political animal”. Another reason why hierarchies emerge and thrive. The need for power, control and climbing up the ladder is different across individuals and so are the things that can be done in those pursuits.

Even if we would build a Utopian society where economics and politics no longer influence, will flatter structures and self-organization be obvious? Personal discipline, responsibility and high level of competence are a must for this style of operation. Will all individuals be the same in terms of the skills and passion they bring to the job? Do they all want to take the same amount of accountability and risk? Not everyone may aspire to be the ship’s captain. Our differences are what makes us human. And these differences lead to explicit and implicit hierarchies.

Having understood the need for hierarchies and why they will not so easily be gotten rid of, should we give up our goal of self-organization. Not really and we would like to make the following hypothesis

Flatter organizational structures are not necessary for self-organization. Self-organization can thrive without it.

The way we see it – flatter organizational structures and self-organization don’t mean the same and not necessarily always co-exist. You could have a group of individuals or teams that each brings different skills to the table and have varying levels of accountability. Yet they can operate beautifully together to create a masterpiece. Self-organization does not need flatter structures. It needs a cohesive team that works together towards a focused goal. Self-organization also needs rules that are set in place to prevent the self-organization transforming into chaos. What we need is a directed and concerted effort to undertake any serious endeavor.

We don’t need to throw away management and governance. We need the right level of management and governance.

We need to be lean not flat.

Would you agree or disagree with this hypothesis? What are the arguments for and against it.

Looking forward to hear from all of you.

Hrishikesh Karekar

Hrishikesh is an enterprise agile coach with interests in varied disciplines. Frequently writing on Agile and Lean related topics, he also occasionally ventures into other stuff like Artificial Intelligence as well..