Baldur Bjarnason

... works as a web developer in Hveragerði, Iceland, and writes about the web, digital publishing, and web/product development

These are his notes

Hierarchies are just a tool, don’t throw them away just because you don’t understand how to use them

“First, Let’s Fire All the Managers”

Pro-flat org hot takes are always interesting but what they always miss is that orgs aren’t badly run because they are hierarchical, they are mismanaged because individual units are either too big or too dependent on the hierarchy.

The problem isn’t hierarchies. The problem is how you distribute authority and decision-making through a hierarchy.

This can be solved in a number of different ways, but the most common solutions do not do away with hierarchies entirely. Completely flat organisations are a specialised tool that you shouldn’t encounter that often.

The standard solution is to push power to the edges and increase the autonomy of individual units. It’s what they do in US military organisations. You can’t have soldiers or marines phone home in the middle of a mission just to ask if they can apply a new tactic in response to a heretofore unknown problem.

Amazon solves the problem in a slightly different way: parts of their organisation is built up of smaller groups who expose their data and functionality through service interfaces.

An API-driven organisation, if you will.

(Amazon does a lot of smart things when it comes to managment. Some of their solutions are unique to their needs. Some of them aren’t. All of them are worth paying attention to.)

A phenomenon from programming offers us a relevant lesson:

Old code is more complicated than new code. This happens because old code is less familiar, because it becomes more interconnected with other code over time, or because other code has grown around it. As a result, if you write code that pushes against the boundaries of what you understand, code that is just simple enough for you to pull off the first time around, then odds are that you won’t understand big parts of that code when it comes to maintaining it as old code.

A similar phenomenon in management has to do with the complexity of change. Most day-to-day management is about reducing variation—attaining stability in an unstable environment. Changing the fundamental structure of an organisation is a much much harder task.

Which means that if your managerial team is doing a crap job as it is, they are unlikely to be able to change the organisation they (and you) are mismanaging.

This leads to the counter-intuitive observation that if you are one of those rare organisations that genuinely would be better off ‘flat’, you still need to fix your hierarchical structure first before you throw it out because odds are that otherwise the management team won’t be able to pull it off.