In the last few months I’ve been seeing a few questions about whether companies should embrace the idea of drastically fewer bosses, or even going without bosses altogether.  I think Valve is a really great example here, though there technically is a “boss” in Gabe Newell, they are purposefully designed to be as flat as possible.  Check out their employee guide book, it’s pretty revolutionary.  As strong as a descriptor as that is, the design that went into it makes it deserved.

I went from working in a smaller company of 20 people, mostly sales, to working in a Fortune 500 global company.  I’ve spent a little less time at the latter, but the differences are many and great.  It’s a wonderful thing to see the world from such different organizational genomes.

The idea of a boss less company sounds very good, but honestly it is idealistic.  That doesn’t mean impossible.  You would have to have people that are both talented in “hard” skills such as engineering, finance, etc, as well as “soft” skills such as how to motivate others and knowing how to follow.  When there is not structured line of command, the employees are responsible for dictating what is worth doing and what is not.  That means that compensation and “climbing the ladder” have to be out of the question.  Valve has done that by stating there is no real promotion or demotion, you just work there and get paid for your work.  You can read about how they do it in the aforementioned link.

Getting this mix of people who are both talented and courageous enough to take on, develop and finalize new projects would be difficult in itself.  If you can do it, you’ve got a very good chance to do well.

The problem is that most workers aren’t necessarily like that.  There are a lot of people who have very good skill sets, but not necessarily the ability to decide on new projects and then execute them.  Large companies especially are filled with people who have very good skill sets in very vertical skill sets.  They aren’t necessarily great at deciding what has to be done, but doing what they’re told is next up very well.  There is nothing wrong with this; it’s a remnant of historically vertical management structures that developed as companies scaled and the creators were given payment and status for that scale.

What I’m saying is that I don’t think you can turn a formerly vertical management structure into an absolutely flat organization.  The conversion wouldn’t work.  On the other hand if you purposefully structure a new company to be flat and hire people that can make the structure work, it’s not only possible but potentially a large competitive advantage over more formulaic organizational structures.

If you have other examples of flat organizations, let me know, I’d like to look at some other business models that focus more on employee empowerment and management.