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Often, whenever we think about an organization, a company, or an institution, in that image is implicit a hierarchy, or better yet, a hierarchical structure holding things together. A form not unlike a pyramid: a vertical shape that has less of its substance on the top than on the bottom.
There are many reasons for this, but ultimately we can simplify and boil them down to two that are correlated. One is because, historically, that type of organization has managed to deliver results even (and mainly) when manpower is not very specialized – centralizing control; the other, because it is the most ubiquitous type or organization, the one we grew up surrounded with – even families, in particular the most traditional/conventional ones, often mimic this structure.
A concept that goes with hierarchy is obedience. The ultimate compliance of the ones lower down the ladder with the decisions of the masterminds above is one of the most important ingredients for this model to work.
I am aware that my choice of words reflects my bias towards less hierarchical environments. Nevertheless, I admit that a hierarchy built upon inclusion, transparency, and discussion; one that concentrates more and more talent, wisdom, and widespread recognition of both as we go up the levels of the structure, as well as a clear vision of the road ahead of the group, can be a healthy setting, prone to thriving in all directions.
But this description is quite a utopia, or very rare to find and keep. Most hierarchies degenerate, on and off, into a fencing of egos, irrational decision-making, generalized distrust, uninspired work, among other things, turning the workplace into a stale environment, particularly for young people.
With the democratization of information, the gap in knowledge and skills between people in general has diminished, which means that people overall are more skillful, self-reliant, and confident. They can adapt better and tend to prefer autonomy over micro-management (who loves micro-management anyway?). This leads to the gradual but evident rejection of the old ways that we see more and more in this regard. Decentralization is the movement of the 21st century, I would say.
Ok. But enough about hierarchy.
So what is a non-hierarchical, horizontal, or flat organization?
Generally speaking, it is an organization in which decision-making is spread horizontally among the team, in a more collaborative way than its counterpart.
With this said, just like SCRUM methodology is well defined, but then each team makes adjustments to their own reality when putting it into practice, the same happens here. The underlying principle/intention is the same, but the flavor varies from team to team.
At Angry Ventures there are no dogmas. Every aspect of our activity is open to discussion. Everyone in the team can question anything and bring solutions to the table, even newcomers. In fact, one of the things I value the most is to hear a different take from someone with a fresh view on things that can expose blind spots silently constructed through routine.
The result of this questioning, or the path to take afterward, is not a matter of decision by the higher rank or hierarchy but rather an agreement reached through discussion and commitment.
Facilitator vs. Manager
Whenever any new member joins the team, they start by participating in projects that require their hard skills. As time passes and as the integration with the team flow happens, eventually everyone gets to the point where they can expand into accepting facilitating new projects.
What this means is that at any given moment, most of the team members are “executing” tasks related to their hard skills in some projects but also being facilitators in others.
There is nobody in the team that is an absolute facilitator, or using a more popular word in the field, a manager: somebody whose role is just to manage budget, timing, people and their tasks in a said project.
In my perspective, this is one of the key elements that makes our approach work because it builds empathy. I realized that whenever I’m in a project in which my part is more on the executing side and I see something that the facilitator could be doing differently, I tend to choose the words better to communicate that, since I know from my experience from other projects with the same team, that that position can be difficult sometimes and exactly in what ways.
Besides, the manager role has more of a protagonistic overtone. Normally, it is the person that has the final word from his level down and is the one that is responsible and accountable. On the other side, a facilitator is just that: someone who works to make it easy for information to flow and to involve everyone who needs to get involved in such a way that decisions and commitment simply emerge. A manager is more akin to a driver, a facilitator to a car.
Explicit vs. implicit authority
As I said earlier, one trait that develops over time in places where hierarchies are very sharp is the fencing of egos.
One simple way this can happen is when someone in a lower rank has an opinion that, even though it is right or fair, goes against the one of a higher rank. If the latter is proud or insecure enough, he will enforce his position based on rank rather than on dialog or data. This not only generates potentially a bad decision, but also resentment, distrust, demotivation and lack of commitment from the people below.
In a horizontal organization, such as Angry Ventures, everyone is the highest rank. Discussions are always met with the intention of reaching the best solution possible, not of asserting one’s role. Everyone is on equal ground so long every argument is well explained and supported.
It may seem counterintuitive, but not every voice has the same weight, though.
If there is anything resembling hierarchy, it has to do with the mutual and general recognition that, regarding a certain subject, one or more of the team members have more knowledge or experience about, which gives their opinion more relevance. This changes from topic to topic, from project to project, but it is always a recognition of an implicit, local, transitory authority, rather than an assertion.
With great power comes…
Great response-ability. No hierarchy means no one looking over nobody’s shoulder, nobody appointed to check the quality of your work or if the deadlines are being met. Instead, there is ownership and an eagerness for feedback and the assumption that everybody is on top of their game and committed with what has been agreed upon. There is great autonomy and empowerment, which fosters creativity and synergy between people.
Sometimes it can happen that a decision might bounce back and forth since no single person has to call the shot but, so far, pragmatism has prevailed, and there haven’t been many deadlocks that we can complain about.
Lastly, let’s look at the etymology for some final insights. From etymonline one can read:
from Greek hierarkhia “rule of a high priest,” from hierarkhes “high priest, leader of sacred rites,” from ta hiera “the sacred rites” (neuter plural of hieros “sacred;” see ire) + arkhein “to lead, rule”
late 14c., jerarchie, ierarchie, “rank in the sacred order; one of the three divisions of the nine orders of angels;” loosely, “rule, dominion,” from Old French ierarchie (14c., Modern French hiérarchie), from Medieval Latin hierarchia “ranked division of angels”
Considering this, I think we can agree that a horizontal or non-hierarchical organization is the default structure angels assume once they have fallen. Well, if not everywhere, at least at Angry Ventures. 🙂