Is Flat Hierarchy Really an Evolution?

Recently I came across an article around Zappo’s new policy of getting rid of their management levels in their business. This has long been a trend in startups and Silicon Valley creativity, and has been rippling through the business spheres since.

This is a bold move for a large company as the larger a company scales, the greater the need for infrastructure, consistency, competence, and communication. Zappo’s traditional organizational structure is being replaced with Holacracy, which is a self-governing system with no job titles and no managers.

What if accountability has little to do with management structure?

At first blush this looks like heaven!  The parents are gone for the weekend and it’s time to call all of our friends. No bosses, no managers, where do I sign up? It emphasizes greater importance of personal responsibility, accountability, and teamwork.

What if that’s possible to achieve AND have a clear managerial structure that’s not an impediment to productivity, but a catalyst? I’ve coached companies that have tried flat hierarchies and what seems like an ‘evolved structure’ often ends up imploding as the authority dynamics that company’s like Zappo’s see as an impediment to creativity and flexibility, still play-out in the workspace.

Authority doesn't vanish in a flat-hierarchy

What if the bureaucracy and lack of accountability is not found by the structure of the organization, but by the people who inhabit it? In every business I’ve coached, it’s the values and embodied leadership of the executive team that sets the tone for the company culture. The structure can never replace this. And getting rid of the bosses won’t ever magically eliminate everyone’s issues with authority.  Zappo’s is well-known for the importance and innovation they place on their company culture, so I’ll be curious to see how they integrate the two, and what results transpire.

I guess there’s just something that’s dishonest about a flat-hierarchy. There still are owners and executives, even if you take away the job titles. There still are greater degrees of responsibility in the business which changing your name tag doesn’t erase. What if the real issue is in asking why accountability is lacking in your company culture in the first-place and what inside of you needs to shift to experience this on the outside?