Since the 1990s, consultants and authors have been touting the benefits of the flat organization. Among the advantages commonly associated with flattened organizations are improved innovation, empowered employees, and faster decision-making. I’ve worked with many “flat” organizations over the years and, rather than improved flexibility and increased speed, found burned out managers, frustrated employees, and high turnover.
Removing layers of management downplays the importance of the coaching and development of future leaders. When a manager has a large number of people on his or her team, it is not possible to spend the time needed to develop problem-solving or leadership skills of team members. As a result, the manager resorts to directing and problem-solving, rather than coaching, and employees feel stuck and left out of the process.
Flat organizations utilize the sink or swim approach to developing people – something I’ve never seen work effectively. When people are left on their own to develop, they will do so in their own way based on their own experiences without the ability to see themselves objectively. As a result, the company can lose control over its culture and systems resulting in deterioration in customer service and long-term performance.
Understanding the Problem
One of the reasons often given for eliminating layers of management is that managers get in the way and slow down processes. Although often a true statement, eliminating layers is not addressing the root cause. The company can benefit more by understanding why its leadership is ineffective, and why its processes and systems are slow, and developing countermeasures that effectively address these causes.
Although there are many companies that do have too many layers of management, improving the situation requires identifying what the organization is trying to achieve and understanding and removing the barriers that are interfering with success – and this is not a quick process. Firing several managers without addressing the real causes of poor performance can magnify the problems and, after a short-term improvement in results, end up in worse shape than doing nothing.
No Quick Fix
In spite of what many of those who tout flat organizations believe, managers do have a purpose in organizations. Flattening the organization is a fad that ignores the importance of developing people and continually improving. As companies like Toyota, Amazon, and Google have proven for many years, long-term success still comes down to effective leadership, respecting people, and a never-ending focus on improvement.