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Myths of a Flat Foundation

Article by:

Zak Dabbas
EO Chicago
Zak Dabbas - EO Chicago

Zappos. Medium. Patagonia. Every time a company adopts a flat organizational structure, there are dozens of articles written about the approach’s merits, as well as postmortems on its failures. So, how do we know any better?

Our company, Punchkick Interactive, is just one example of how a flat organization can navigate the corporate world. We have never been a traditional business, so we’ve been more or less flat since day one. But as we’ve scaled, we’ve explored new processes to become "flatter" that make daily life more efficient for our team, improve communication between disciplines, and ultimately empower each Punchkicker to make his or her own decision to improve the company.

We took inspiration from Frederic Laloux’s book, “Reinventing Organizations,” which introduces a self-managed organizational framework called “Teal.” We didn't wholly adopt the processes included within Teal, but instead thought long and hard about how these ideas could apply to our company, gradually piecing together a system that worked for us. Sure, we’ve had doubts that this management style would make us more successful— there are just so many misconceptions about going flat. But, we’ve had huge wins along the way, making a flat structure work for us.

Here are some of the biggest “flat” myths we debunked on our journey:

Myth #1: Flat means decision-making by consensus

Flat doesn't mean decision-making happens by consensus, and it doesn’t mean a crazy free-for-all either. In a flat system, team members are empowered to make the decisions they need to make— but only after seeking the advice of their peers and experts. No one is bound to follow the advice received, but in practice, they absolutely do. Flat organizations often call this “an advice channel,” and it’s an essential part of arming employees with the ability to evaluate and problem-solve the challenges they see their organization facing.

Myth #2: Employees act in their own self-interests

An essential part of going flat is accepting the belief that employees are inherently good, and that when provided with a transparent look at company financials, successes and obstacles, they’ll work in the best interests of the team. There are a lot of reasons why this is the case, not the least of which is an intrinsic motivation for employees to be a part of something bigger that has a real sense of meaning. Call it a millennial factor. Call it human nature. I’m just thankful it’s real.

Myth #3: Any company can go flat

If you don't have complete and utter buy-in from the highest levels of leadership prior to going flat, it will never stick. In fact, going flat should be looked at as the last executive order by “the top.” Post-flat evolution and change comes from company members, not managers. This is possibly the hardest thing for a founder to accept, but the result is that instead of centralized knowledge and power being in the hands of a few, the business is run by an entire company of informed, compassionate leaders.

Zak Dabbas (pictured) is an EO Chicago member and the CEO of Punchkick Interactive, a mobile-development agency specializing in UX/UI, user-testing and analytics. He is also a contributor to EO’s Inc.com partnership portal, where this article was originally published. Contact Zak at zak@punchkick.com.​​​​​​​​​​​

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