The dangers of "flat" organizations


Thought this was rather interesting. Might be an example of “taking a good idea to the extreme” a la Zappos and holocracy, but it does serve as a warning. As humans we like some semblance of structure, and without it we let too much of the lizard brain out, and this happens. Sociocracy has some wonderful ideas, but it’s all about implementation.

@MikeC didn’t we just have a conversation about this?

“The Nightmare of Valve’s self-organizing ‘utopia’” by Ong Kar Jin


Good article.

Flat organizations are fiction. There’s no such thing. As the article points out, informal hierarchies emerge.

Jordan Peterson talks often about hierarchies – I find his perspective helpful and some key points are these:

  • Anytime a ‘task’ (or goal/objective/initiative) is identified, a hierarchy emerges because some people will be more competent than others to perform that task. (Be it tennis, programming, marriage, hunting, gathering, and so on.)
  • Hierarchies, by nature and without corruption are based on competence (i.e. the ‘original’ condition).
  • Hierarchies, however, tend toward corruption and tyranny. (That’s when hierarchies of power emerge…but those are ‘corrupt’ conditions and not the ‘original’ condition.)

So, in companies where formal hierarchies are muted, it’s just really important to acknowledge that informal hierarchies are bound to emerge – there’s no getting away from that. And to help ensure those hierarchies do not mutate toward corruption and tyranny, some ground rules need to be formalized so that everybody can know that the game isn’t fixed. Hierarchies of competence are stable when everyone knows the rules of the game.

Valve may avoid some of their cultural psychopathy by formalizing some of the key questions in the company: how to get hired and fired, how to get a raise, how to cooperate with peers rather than perpetually compete.


Good call @David! These “hierarchies” also speak to Niels Pflaegling’s theory of organizational physics, about how there’s 3 networks at play in every organization:

-Formal Networks: a.k.a traditional, top-down managerial hierarcy
-Informal Networks: the organic lines of communication that naturally occur in complex adaptive systems
-Value-driven Networks: the networks of people who are known to “get things done” and deliver value to the organization.

I think you need a delicate balance of all 3 in any successful organization. It’s hard for humans to avoid eons of evolutionary programming and NOT slip into base habits of tyranny or corruption.

I’ve been working on a conference presentation overlaying those 3 networks with Malcolm Gladwells 3 people that are necessary to make an idea stick from The Tipping Point, but I’m not quite there yet :blush:


Wholeheartedly agree with @David, hierarchies will form and will exist regardless. I believe it’s a natural human behavior. However…

I also believe an organization will experience better outcomes for their customers, people, and by extension their shareholders when the hierarchies acknowledge that they exist to serve their customers and the people doing the work, not the other way 'round.


Link is broken?


Works for me, but I noticed it’s opening directly in the medium app… Let me try and repost thru a browser.


try this…


a good read, thanks for that one!