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Look Mom, No Managers!

A Norwegian company engages in a radical experiment in flat structure, while researchers tag along to study the surprising effects. (Hint: It stinks.)
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With network-loving Gen Y entering the workforce and the premium paid for creative thinking growing ever higher, command, control, and middle managers are out. Flat structures are in.

Tearing down hierarchies and yanking bosses out of their offices (or, gasp, eliminating them entirely) might attract young talent, boost intrinsic motivation, and unleash silo-breaking collaboration, but as we've covered here on Inc.com before, some experts fear flatter organizations aren't without their down sides. So how do you know if this trend for flat is going to be a net win for your business?

You could try it out and see, but thankfully there's a less risky option. Someone already did the experiment for you.

Tools, a Norwegian manufacturer of--you guessed it!--tools, not only reorganized its staff to eliminate supervisors and create self-governing teams, but it also allowed researchers to tag along, studying the results and interviewing the workers over a period of 13 years. By examining Tools's missteps, entrepreneurs can hopefully avoid duplicating them.

And there were plenty of missteps, the BPS Occupational Digest reports. The company's initial plan was to eliminate the role of "foreman" as traditionally understood and a try a different approach, "where each week a different team member took on a spokesperson role."

The workers loved the idea and the autonomy it promised at the start, but significant issues with the system soon developed:  

Although members wanted to do good by their team, the transient nature of the spokesperson responsibility made it possible to skimp on more onerous and seemingly less essential activities like information-sharing. Moreover, the fact that the spokesperson role was crafted around the team needs meant that when tensions between teams or functions emerged, there were few formal mechanisms to resolve disputes. Spokespeople were unable to enforce decisions that were individually unpopular but better for the larger system: "self-management ends up with what is optimal for each individual, and that is comfort"--meaning that products were put together on a schedule that was efficient for the team but was harmful to the inventory management.

With these problems becoming glaring, Tools decided to try a different approach. "The new system involved distributed leadership, where managerial responsibilities were unbundled and made the responsibility of different team members. In this '5-M' model, one person would look after Man, another Machine, and so on," explains BPS. Did this second experimental structure sort out the issues? Not exactly:

Real-life problems don't always fall neatly into boxes. The interviews revealed concerns that non-essential issues often got kicked from one M to another without resolution. Concrete and immediate problems did tend to get resolved rapidly and effectively, but anything big-picture called on co-ordination that no-one was equipped for.

It's unfair, of course, to list the problems that crop up when companies implement flatter structures, while acting like traditional management hierarchies are trouble-free. More familiar org charts, we all know, frequently result in information hoarding, CYA behavior, territorial pissing contests, and a thorough lack of understanding on the part of frontline workers as to how their individual tasks contribute to the organization's overall mission (producing a consequent lack of motivation), among a host of other sins.

Are the problems of flatter structures more severe or less detrimental to your particular business? These are open questions each business owner will ultimately have to answer for herself, but this Norwegian research is nonetheless a healthy reminder that every management system has flaws and trade offs. Flat isn't unalloyed awesomeness, so choose it thoughtfully, not simply because it's trendy.

Does anyone out there have similar gripes with their company's flat management structure?

IMAGE: bendeavin via Flickr
Last updated: Jul 23, 2012

JESSICA STILLMAN | Columnist

Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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