CHAPTER 4Flat Organization, Flat Fail

We began to realize that by building a company with a flat org structure, we had done the exact opposite of what we had intended.

—Chris Savage, CEO, Wistia

Since the late 2000s, the idea of a flat organizational structure has become an industry norm, especially in the tech space. As businesses like Zappos, Treehouse, Medium, GitHub, Buffer, and others took off, they championed a flat organizational structure with little hierarchy and few managerial layers. To the casual observer, this structure seems to make sense and even be a good thing. No bosses? Who doesn't like that? No real chain of command, and no one to report to? Also good. Less corporate politics with people screwing each other over to move up the ladder of success? Sign me up. A flat organization seems as close to how we all want to work as anyone could get. You do your job, everyone else does theirs, and all is well with the world. Except it doesn't work out that way.

You probably never heard or read that all the organizations that extolled the flat organization abandoned the concept. GitHub gave up on a flat organization as the company restructured in 2016 because of a need for organizational structure and hierarchy. Buffer moved away from the concept, and its CEO even penned a letter about it entitled “What We Got Wrong.” Medium went back to a more formal organization because “Holacracy” (a term the company coined for a decentralized structure with teams working autonomously ...

Get How NOT to Lead now with the O’Reilly learning platform.

O’Reilly members experience books, live events, courses curated by job role, and more from O’Reilly and nearly 200 top publishers.