HR Group, founded in Edmonton Alberta in 1993, is a partnership of highly experienced management consultants who specialize in organizational effectiveness and human resource management, and promote participative, lean, and cost-effective management practices. All partners are Certified Human Resource Practitioners with extensive senior level experience in both the private and public sectors.

Flatter Is Better

By Dimitri Pojidaeff, HR Group Management Consultants

Originally published in the May 2004 issue of Municipal World

If the traditional management style is dead, then why keep the traditional hierarchical organizational structure?

The traditional management style was to control the way people work; to control what they do, how they do it and every other aspect of their work. This was the primary function of the manager. Most successful organizations today, however, understand that a more democratic management style is more productive and that the traditional style is no longer accepted by most employees, especially a better educated and younger workforce.

Today we talk about participative management, self managed teams, delegated responsibility and authority, empowerment, and the rise of organizational democracy in general. The traditional management position that did most of the “controlling” is being removed from many organizations. Experts such as Peter Block (1993, p.66) said over ten years ago in his book, Stewardship, that, “No one should be able to make a living simply planning, watching, controlling, or evaluating the actions of others.” Michael Hammer (1993, pp.51-53), the reengineering expert, said in an article that, “Middle management, as we currently know it, will simply disappear.”

Managers, of course, are still here today, but their role has significantly changed and sometimes their title. They are expected to be coaches, mentors, trainers and facilitators who support rather than control and who are just as likely to be called team leader as manager or supervisor. They are expected to be leaders rather than controllers.

The title of the position, be it supervisor, manager, director or vice president, is not the critical issue here. We use the term management and manager here in the generic sense. What is the issue is whether a management position is purely one of “control” or whether it has a legitimate role.

Why do three or four or five program managers, for example, automatically require a director to “oversee” them or to “coordinate” their programs? Are they not competent enough to be responsible for their programs? Are they not capable of collaborating and cooperating with each other as required? We note, for example, that a major public sector employer was recently searching for a general manager to “oversee” the departments of finance, human resources, information technology and law. What on earth needs “overseeing”? What needs coordinating? Presumably each area has a competent and well trained manager who should be responsible and accountable for their own department including the required teamwork with all other departments.

The old argument is frequently still put forward, however, that the management “span of control” is limited and, therefore, one cannot have too many managers reporting directly to the chief administrative officer in this example or a chief executive officer in the private sector. But that’s exactly the point – there’s that word “control” again. If we accept the fact that this traditional management style is dead, or should be, then why are we still using traditional organizational concepts that support it? If we accept a different management style and overall organizational culture then there is no question of “span of control”.

The traditional hierarchical organizational structure and the traditional management style were mutually supportive and dependent upon each other. Traditional managers relied on power and status to exercise control. The traditional organizational hierarchy was based on levels of power and status and provided for such positions of control; whereas there is no room for such positions in a flat organizational structure.

The hierarchical organizational structure not only supports the concept of management “control” and the positions that exercise that control, it actually impedes any serious attempt to adopt a more participative and democratic workplace culture.

  • The hierarchical  structure, by its very nature, forces vertical communication and discourages horizontal communication. It fosters and supports individual silos that do not have to communicate and cooperate with each other.
  • The hierarchy of control stands squarely in the way of delegated responsibility and, therefore, breeds irresponsibility and a lack of accountability. One can always pass the buck up the chain of command rather than be accountable.
  • Teamwork in general and cross-functional teams in particular require freedom of horizontal communication which is impeded by a vertical structure.
  • Participative management cannot exist in the traditional hierarchy; the two are mutually exclusive. The hierarchy is based on authority and control as opposed to delegation and participation. You either scrap the hierarchy or give up any pretense of a participative management style.
  • A hierarchical structure also reinforces arbitrary differences in the level of rewards; differences that are not based on skill and ability or the level of contribution to the organization and its bottom line. Rewards need not be equal; the marketplace dictates different rewards for different occupations. But other distinctions in level of pay should be based on contribution to the organization, not arbitrary distinctions in power and status.

In the same manner that the traditional hierarchical organizational structure supports the traditional management style, a flat structure supports, fosters, and reinforces a more participative and productive management style and workplace culture. It will even, by its very nature, serve to force such changes.

  • The communication is more open, direct, and accurate.
  • Individual program managers cannot hide and pass the buck; there is no one to pass it to.
  • Managers are forced to work with each other across the organization and not just within the narrow confines of some individual silo.
  • The “management team” is a truly representative team of all programs and not just a few select individuals who presume to speak for others in areas that they have little if any experience with.
  • Because the management team is now truly representative of all interests, there is far greater opportunity for open and honest input and dialogue from all areas, and less opportunity for the protection of vested interests or personal power and status.

Changing the organizational structure is arguably the most important step in changing the organizational culture to a more participative one; yet it is frequently overlooked.

Competent chief executive officers and chief administrative officers don’t need several vice presidents and/or directors to “oversee”, control, and coordinate competent program heads. Keep it simple, keep it flat, and reap the benefits of a more productive organization.

The traditional management style is dead. Bury the traditional organizational structure with it.

References

Block, P., 1993. Stewardship. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.

Hammer, M., 1993. The Future of Middle Managers. Management Review.