You Really Can Be Too Flat

That would be a “Denial of Service Attack on the Commander” were the words I heard from strategist when discussing how leaders in flat organizations can become overwhelmed. The world is enamored with “flat organizations,” and along with the organizational agility a flat organization brings, it also can breed organizational paralysis if the leader becomes a single point of failure.

What is Flat?

A flat organization has few (or no) layers of leadership or management between the people doing the actual work, and senior leaders. Leaders can use a variety of communication techniques, electronic or otherwise, to stay connected with their teams around the world. Automation can replace “touches” of paperwork and internal communication that once required supervision. Modern technology has created opportunities to remove organizational layers,  but with that “flattening” comes danger. That danger can manifest itself in three distinct ways: over-control, under-control, and an insatiable desire for detailed information. Good leaders need to avoid all three.

Bad Wolf

In the military, the euphemism for “over-control” is the “five-thousand mile screwdriver.” The idea here is that senior leaders, far away from the point of contact, are directing tactics of small units. There’s a famous story from the NATO intervention in the former-Yugoslavia that illustrates this point nicely. In 1999, the video feed from the RQ-1 Predator remotely piloted aircraft was a new thing, and the feeds were displayed in the Pentagon. The story goes that very senior Airmen were watching the feeds and attempting to give direction to the aircrew flying their Predators half a world away. Eventually, the Combined Air Component Commander turned off the feed to inhibit the “helpers” choosing targets for him from their Pentagon offices.

Don’t Wake Me

The flip side of over-control is under-control, which is equally as dangerous. If senior leaders are task-saturated, they will tend to over-delegate. Task-saturated leaders will “run home to mama” and immediately go to what they know best. This means that they end up putting their attention where it’s usually least needed, and ignoring bigger problems that crop up in more unfamiliar territory. I confess that I often used my boss’ task-saturation to my advantage: not waiting or even asking for guidance, but rather pursuing the work I thought was most important. Not everyone is so bold, so the over-delegator often breeds a climate where nothing actually gets done. People will hesitate to make decisions for fear of displeasing the boss or doing something wrong. You then get a situation where the team is waiting for guidance and the boss is check out expecting things are humming along nicely.

Put Me In Coach

As a Texan, football is really in my blood so football analogies always worked best for me. In striking the balance in a flat organization, my advice is to approach the job like a football team’s head coach. The head coach’s main job is to set the conditions for success. He trains the players, he builds gameplans with his assistant coaches, he secures resources from the organization, and he inspires the entire team to perform at their best. What the head coach doesn’t do is delegate his job to others and check out, nor does he call all the plays. The best coaches are the ones who are quietly observing the game, moving among the players to inspire and correct, and adjusting the strategy. If the head coach is busy calling plays, he’s wasting the talents of his assistants and players.

Flat organizations can work very well, but only if they are well led.

Mickey is an expert in leadership and organizational change. During his 30 year US Air Force career Mickey commanded thousands of Airmen, managed portfolios worth billions of dollars, and worked with military, civil, and industry officials around the world. Mickey now works with clients around the country to improve performance and help organizational transformation. He is a Distinguished Graduate of the Eisenhower School at National Defense University in Washington DC. Mickey is the author of eight books, including Leading Leaders: Inspiring, Empowering, and Motivating TeamsMickey’s Rules for Leaders, and The Five Be’s: A Straightforward Guide to Life.

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