Flat Structure

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iStock_000001520729XSmall_office_chair_sofaI see this a lot nowadays — and I’m sure it’s not just me who notices it: every other job advert you see out there, or every other company seems to pride themselves nowadays with “practicing a flat structure”. Apparently, this is supposed to improve efficiency and motivation, according to their own bragging.

I’m talking mostly about startups here, by the way, though I bet you if you set off to research this in-depth, you will find a few larger organizations which do the same.

It normally goes like this: there are the founders (2 or more) who will assign themselves some titles (CEO, CTO, CCO and the likes). Then everyone else in the team is on the same par. This, we are being told, motivates the employees to work harder: because there are no titles “for grabs”, apparently, the employees will focus on projects more. Also, apparently, doing so encourages collaboration: because there is no immediate boss to make decisions, all decisions need to be made in consensus, thus forcing pretty much everyone to talk to everyone.

I couldn’t disagree more to be honest!

First of all, I don’t know anyone who is serious about their career to not pay attention to titles: show me one single guy who went from Junior Developer to say CTO — and actually made it! Companies hire people based on their previous experience — which makes sense. It’s a ladder we all have to climb and we have to plan our moves — if you want to get to CTO you have to build up the experience for it by working on small projects first, then bigger projects, bigger teams, add some management to it, budgeting and so on. A company will look at your previous experience when considering you for your position — if your experience include most of their requirements you probably qualify for interviewing. And in deciding whether you do qualify or not they will look of course at your recent experience. And title — which is, after all, just a summary of the job we perform. If the previous job you performed was let’s say accountant you most likely won’t qualify for a job as a HR manager; similarly, if your previous job title was of Junior Engineer then you probably won’t qualify for a CTO job. So then why would simply being “member of staff at company XYZ” qualify you for a C-level position in another company? What’s the difference in between you and a junior member of staff who just joined and is also “member of staff at company XYZ”?  Sure, it works great if you’re junior as it disguises your lack of experience totally, and from there on you can jump onto a senior position in another company — but what about for the more senior staff?

Which brings me to the next point: if there are no titles, how do we differentiate in between those 2 categories? Since there are no titles, does that mean that I am identically the same with someone with very little experience? Do we get paid the same? No! (I hope!!!) — so then why do we do this? Does not trigger this thought in people’s mind? (And that’s the last thing if you need in a company, employees to start being suspicious of each other’s salaries and benefits — that’s one step away from sinking ship!)

Also, because of this structure, it means that an experienced person cannot make a decision, despite knowing it’s a right one — instead he or she has to go through a whole “voted by committee” operation to get a decision out there. First of all, why do other people without relevant experience have a saying in this? Secondly, startups are supposed to be agile, whereas this sounds to me like things are being slowed down! No one can make a call right away and go with it, right?

Because of this structure, apparently, it’s much easier for junior members to gain experience quickly — they are being thrown into the deep end and with lots of experienced people around them to help. That to me sounds like a company which doesn’t have that much HR and is not too interested in helping the employees develop their skills: why invest in training when we can get the others in the company to train them and save the money? Not to mention that this, again, will occasionally slow down some of your employees who have to switch from their task to help the junior guys — this is all normal and part of mentoring and coaching in a company that has structures in place to support in-house development. But in those cases, the mentor has targets and deadlines which take into consideration his or her mentoring job too — if however there is no clear demarcation of junior vs senior, then there can’t be any talks about mentoring! And as such, every time you do help someone you are sliding behind with your targets, surely?

I have worked for my experience, and that got me the career and the title — I take care of my career and plan my next step carefully each time. So why would a company take that away from me? Does that not sound like not caring that much about their employees and their development needs?