Thinking about Becoming a “Flat” Organization? Here are 5 things to think about

This summer, COCo collaborated on a workshop at the World Social Forum (WSF) called “Putting our values into practice through non-hierarchical management”, with Inter Pares and the Réseau Québécois des Groupes Écologistes (RQGE), two other community organizations who also use a horizontal management structure. The workshop was standing-room only, and attracted more than 50 participants of all horizons. Together, we used our own histories and motivations for moving towards a flat structure, to navigate a wide variety of audience questions about governance, human resources, salary equity, and meeting facilitation.  

The popularity of the workshop might have to do in part with the context of the WSF, a forum with a strong interest in challenging the long-standing hierarchical structures in our sector and in our society, and the neoliberal, partriarchal, and otherwise damaging tendencies those structures represent. To consider applying non-hierarchical practices in our organizations is to consider, in a certain sense, a model that favours process over “productivity at all costs”, and equity over entrenched power.

Here are 5 takeaways we can share about our exchange with participants at the workshop.

  1. A flat structure is not a solution to broken power dynamics or poor internal communication (or not a good way to save money). Sometimes community organizations see a move towards a flat structure as a panacea for their declining team dynamics or a way to usurp a tyrannical executive director. They dream of more transparency while failing to acknowledge the problems inherent in their internal communication practices. It is important to address these issues before considering a move towards a flat structure, which requires a healthy organization and the consensus of the staff and board to move forward. Consider initiating other initiatives, like mediation or conflict resolution, instead!<
  2. When making decisions by consensus, clear roles, policies and norms are the key to success.Flat structures replace decisions “from above” with decisions mostly done by consensus. This requires more time, longer meetings, and more investment in the process, which can be frustrating without proper norms to guide you. For example, ensure that desired outcomes for each agenda item (e.g. information? Discussion? decision?) are clearly indicated and that the meeting minutes are properly documented and shared for organizational memory purposes. Assigning rotating roles for facilitator, minute-taker, mood-minder and time-keeper can also help in making sure that skills and power circulate between team members.<
  3. Building trust and a nurturing a culture of open and constructive feedback is key! Supporting and addressing performance issues, unhealthy group dynamics or interpersonal conflict quickly is also key in non-hierarchical structure. When this is no longer the responsibility of the ED/Board, it’s everyone’s! How comfortable are you raising issues or problems? Have you ever been emotional or supporting someone going through a tough time at work? Are there repercussions, or other responses, for when someone isn’t fulfilling their responsibilities? While and an HR/personnel committee can help move policies & procedures forward, coordinate work plans, plan retreats, and initiate regular evaluations, it is equally important that everyone be able to have one-on-one conversations for folks to express frustration or readjust expectations BEFORE issues snowball to another level.
  4. Transitioning to a well oiled horizontal structure takes time and commitment!  Is the timing right? Have you got the right people on your Board? Have you had conversations internally and externally about this? Needless to say it’s important to have fun, celebrate successes and learnings throughout! There is no such thing as a perfect horizontal or more hierarchical organization.
  5. Good jobs matter whether or not your organization is structured horizontally. Interestingly, studies show that, in addition to making a living wage, there are a number of other criteria that make people feel motivated by their work.  According to Emery and Thorsrud (1969), these six criterias are:
    1.  Elbow room or optimal autonomy in decision-making
    2. Continual learning – or the ability to set goals and receive helpful feedback about those goals
    3. Variety of tasks
    4. Mutual support and respect
    5. Meaningfulness : doing something with value & seeing how it fit’s the ‘big picture’
    6. Having a desirable future, not having a dead-end job!

How would each person rate their positions based on these criteria? Can things be tweaked, or do you need to restructuring existing positions? What would your Board, members or partners need to Board/membership/partners need to understand for them to support a shift in the organisation’s places of power?

The workshop was facilitated by Parker Mah and Sabrina McFadden from COCo, Guillaume Charbonneau and Samantha McGavin from Inter Pares, and Aurélie Girard from the RQGE. This article was written by Parker and Sabrina!