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How does a company with no managers work? (Part 1)

21st Aug 2014
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I work for a flat organisation. Yes that’s right- no managers. I have no boss, there’s no hierarchy and no one tells me what to do. I know what you’re thinking; how on earth does that work?

It’s true. I really do work for an entirely flat organisation, with zero hierarchy and no managers.

As a concept, flat organisations are gaining in popularity. Yet as I type mesmorisingly on my keyboard, I can still envisage the inevitable professor-esque thought that comes into your head.

I hear what you’re saying, but how does that actually work?

Rather than tell you my story or describe a typical day, I’ve decided to approach this blog slightly differently. In addition to the background information, I asked my contacts for the first 5 questions they could think to ask me about my company, and I’ve answered them in the hope that it sheds light on the more practical side of flat organisations.

Why the change to a flat organisation?

First, the why part.

I work in Marketing for a company called Effectory International. Our core business is employee surveys, with an emphasis on employee engagement. Now whilst we have a truly great product and way of working with our partners, we are nonetheless, in the employee survey business. And this in itself is not groundbreaking- employee surveys have, after all, been around for many years.

But yet we are a unique company, largely due to our culture and structure. We used to be an old styled, hierarchical, tayloristic organisation- and yet, in a short amount of time we’ve changed to a functional, multi-disciplinary organisation, where each different team is responsible for a different sector of the market.

The underlying reason for the change was in response to two developments. Firstly, the internal employee surveys conducted at our organisation told the management that large numbers of highly educated, talented employees were being over managed. The feedback, via the survey, was that there was a real wish from employees for more autonomy.

Secondly, the company was growing. With an already sizeable management team in place, expansion posed a new conundrum. If the same style of management and company structure was to be kept, then the company needed an additional layer of management.

When the management team analysed the two developments, they realised that adding an additional layer of management was counter to the wishes and feedback they were receiving from employees. After much deliberation, and glowing reviews from some of our partners who had adopted the flat organisation structure, the decision was made. No more managers.

The company structure

Secondly, the company structure.

In short, our company structure comprises of teams. Each team has a specific focus (e.g. retail industry, health sector etc...) and each team is comprised of number of specialists. The specialists within each team include marketers, project managers, sales, reporting specialists, project consultants and various assistants.

In addition to the main teams, we have a large technical and innovation team, the HR & finance team, as well as a commercial team that consists of graphic designers, commercial specialists, concept specialists and web designers.

Each of the industry specific teams is supported by the technical and innovation teams, as well as the smaller teams. Furthermore, there also exist teams related to function. So for example, project managers are part of an industry specific team, as well as part of the company wide project management team.

In creating industry specific teams and function teams, our company maximises our potential as we’re able to work, and knowledge spar, with both our industry specific colleagues, and function specific colleagues.

How does having no boss work on a day-to-day basis?

Now to the interesting part; the practicalities of having no boss.

The following 5 questions are designed to give you more of an insight on how flat organisations work on practical level:

  • How does everyone decide what tasks they should do?

Within my company there’s an awful lot of trust. Though it may sound cliché, employees are entrusted to ensure that the decisions on what tasks to do, are the right ones. As an expert in our discipline, we are expected to have a good overall view of our work landscape, and to know what needs to be done and when.

Naturally, there are of course times when we’re not 100% sure. When this occurs, we are expected to be pro-active in our approach. What this actually means is that instead of dallying on a problem, we are expected to seek colleagues who we can spar with and who can give us helpful advice. In addition to a pro-active approach, our company also revolves around feedback- it’s our bread and butter.

Practically, this means that as individuals, we all receive feedback on our work from colleagues. So for example, if the sales team provides me with feedback that there aren’t enough leads coming in, I know that this should become a focus area of mine and I should therefore dedicate more of my time to that focus area. The difficulty is of course a balance, but it is one that we constantly work on and receiving regular feedback from different areas of the company really helps.

For new employees, the emphasis is placed on proper training and new employees are given a thorough introduction to our company. In doing so, they gain a better understanding of what tasks are nominally performed within a role and gain an idea of the expectations that accompany their role.

  • How do decisions get made?

Decisions can be categorised in two broad categories: individual and team.

The individual decisions are the small day-to-day decisions that someone makes in a role. For instance, in my role the individual decisions could be which blog to publish, which platforms to publish which blog on etc. etc. In essence, they are within the realm of people’s expertise and are decisions that people are entrusted to make. In general, such decisions do not have a huge impact on the wider team or organisation.

Team decisions are the bigger decisions that tend to have wider ranging impact and consequences. So for example, in my role team decisions could be our commercial strategy, or large advertising opportunities. When a team decision is required, team members and the relevant colleagues are informed of the situation and are invited to give their thoughts and feedback, which in turn is used to create a more or less democratic process.

In reality, larger decisions are only brought before the team once they’ve been well thought out and well discussed internally, and so majorities can therefore usually be reached.

*Part 2 to follow soon

This blog was originally posted on LinkedIn

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