Flat – Fluid – Flexible

Freedom is one of our basic needs: in politics, we demand democratic participation; in the economy, we demand free markets; in our adult relationships, we insist on horizontal relations between equals.

We hate being ruled by dictators; we hate being told which jobs to take and which things to consume; we hate being bossed around by friends.

Yet, when we go to work, we accept strict command-and-control hierarchies resembling adult-child relationships. Everybody who has ever worked in conventional, hierarchical organisations knows that this way of doing things is not only soul-crushing and ineffective but also often results in outcomes that are bad for clients, employees, society, and the environment.

Isn’t this strange? And, could it be different?

Look at the infinitely complicated patterns of snowflakes that form spontaneously, without a master plan.

Look at the phenomenal feats of ants and termites: they self-organise into labyrinthine states with millions of members that last thousands of years, longer than any human nation; use tools; farm animals and mushrooms; build vast, intricate compounds with drainage and air conditioning.

Look at the murmurations of starlings and schools of fish that coordinate in complex maneuvres to hunt prey or evade being hunted

None of these complex activities has a central planner, middle management, or bureaucracy.

What if self-organisation were the superior way to manage human institutions?

As it turns out, many organisations have implemented principles of de-centralisation, non-domination, self-management, and autonomy to varying degrees: Native American societies, medieval guilds, pirates, Quakers, cooperatives and commons, symphony orchestras, Wikipedia, Occupy, and the United States Marine Corps; and companies like W. L. Gore, Semco, Haier, and Red Hat.

In this programme, we will discover the commonalities and differences between these cases. We will encounter several modern frameworks that try to codify flat organisational design, including some varieties of Agile, Teal, and Holacracy.

We will learn about various scientific insights from economics, psychology, sociology, anthropology, and systems theory that help explain how, when and why flat hierarchies work better than the conventional pyramid. We will see that flatness makes organisations internally more fluid, and how this fluidity translates into these organisations navigating today’s VUCA world more flexibly. Perhaps most importantly, we will see why flatness is still the exception rather than the norm.

After completing the programme, you will understand how you can successfully transform your organisation with flat structures and procedures while avoiding the pitfalls that can make them fail.

You can learn more about the programme here.

Image credits: Snowflake macro photography 1 by Alexey Kljatov and Cathedral Termite Mound in Australia by AwOiSoAk KaOsIoWa, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons