Working in a Flat Company

Recently at Treehouse, we made a pretty bold decision as a company and did away with all management. This may not be news to you since Ryan, our CEO, has been blogging about it in detail. If you haven’t read his series, you should check it out starting with No Managers: Why We Removed Bosses at Treehouse.

When Ryan first approached the company about making the decision to become a flat company, I was on the fence. I firmly believed that if there were any issues at Treehouse, we didn’t need to get rid of management, but maybe reshape it. Great leaders can do wonders to align their teams with the company’s mission and vision.

It’s also not that I thought my coworkers weren’t capable of managing themselves. My fear was that in our individual desires to be autonomous, there would be widespread chaos. But if you are a Treehouse employee, or have interacted with one, then you know we change quite often. And since one of my reasons for joining Treehouse was to work for a company that embraced change, I decided to shove aside what little trepidation I had on the matter and vote Yes to going flat. And I’m glad I did.

Initially, as expected, there was utter chaos. :) But soon we calmed down and learned (and are still learning) to filter what was necessary to get our jobs done. There have been some blog posts and articles written by CEOs and founders on running a flat organization, but I want to chime in on what it is like to actually work in such an environment, and touch on a few important observations.

Empowering

The first thing about being part of a flat structure is that you feel empowered. In a traditional management structure, regardless of who comes up with an idea (other than the C-level people), you have to seek approval before you can action anything. In the process of doing so, much of your passion that fueled the original idea is drained. People want to act on ideas they think will move the company forward and by allowing them to do so, the feeling that you can actually contribute to the larger mission of the company grows.

You might worry that loosened of such bonds, people will do whatever the heck they want to, and that was one of my original fears. But there are ways to make sure things go according to plan. Here’s how it goes for us: At Treehouse, when someone proposes a project, first they have to indicate which company priority it aligns with, then they have to convince the people necessary for the project to get off the ground that this is something worth working on.

Reasons for indicating which company priorities the project fulfills should be a no brainer. The second part, asking for people to join your project, is an even better filter, however. There are three possible outcomes:

  • No one joins your project because they don’t want to. While not 100% true in all instances, this is a great indicator that your project may not actually benefit the company that much. There are many instances where a manager comes up with an idea that his or her team doesn’t think is a great idea, but they go ahead with it anyway because they are assigned to the task.

To highlight a real example, Ryan came up with a marketing/PR campaign recently and proposed the project. Not only did no one join it, half the company actively opposed it saying it wasn’t a great fit for us, forcing Ryan to go back to the drawing board. Would it have been possible to dissuade Ryan before we went flat? Maybe, but probably not. He said so himself (citing it as proof that going flat was a good thing). Allowing your employees to be part of such decisions make all the difference.

  • Second, no one joins your project because other projects are of higher priority. Companies have limited resources and need to manage them effectively. By allowing people to move around to where they think their skills are used best, resource allocation improves by leaps and bounds. Instead of a manager pulling a designer off a project because they want one of their team’s projects finished, individual designers can move around the company’s task list and work through it. In the event that certain projects need to be completed even though resources are allocated elsewhere, Ryan and Alan, as CEO and Co Founder, can highlight a certain project or projects and request that resources be allocated to it immediately. Someone then either jumps on that project or individuals within a team can decide amongst each other who has the most bandwidth to handle it.
  • Lastly, people join your project and things happen as planned.

Under the flat structure, employees have the power to directly affect the company’s direction by proposing and joining projects to aid it. Even in the event that the project doesn’t ever get started, you know the reason behind it’s failure/abandonment and it’s not just a manager saying “No, we won’t move on this.” It makes a big difference.

You Have Ownership

Tied to the first point on being empowered, in my experience our flat structure has resulted in better project quality and faster turnaround times – a direct result of people owning the projects they create. When you are assigned a project by a manager, you do it because you have to, it’s part of your job title. But when you propose, create and lead a project, it’s your baby. People work on it actively, more efficiently and see it through to the end, because they are directly responsible for its success or failure.

At Treehouse, everyone can see all ongoing, proposed, completed, abandoned and failed projects and can inquire on the progress on any project. It keeps us all accountable.

Now this isn’t to say that, before going flat, that we didn’t care about our work. It’s just in our natures to work harder when we do something of our own accord instead of being told to do so.

Communication

Ryan has already written about how we use internal tools to help facilitate the increased communication burden that results from transparency but there is another aspect that needs to be highlighted.

Prior to going flat, if I needed design or dev resources, I communicated that to my supervisor, who would then communicate that to the head of the dev/design teams, who would then allocate the resources if they could afford to. In this entire process, I rarely ever communicated directly with the person who was involved in my project. This led to a few different problems:

  • longer turnaround times
  • miscommunication on what kind of work was needed and how
  • strained communication. Since I didn’t know the other team’s process, oftentimes I would give them barely enough time to complete the work I needed. They would end up being frustrated since they were assigned the work at the very last minute, but I would be none the wiser.

Now, since I work directly with a designer, developer or someone from the marketing team, it’s much easier to understand processes, communicate any frustrations and work on the project together. By removing a project manager layer that existed in between, better work is produced at a much faster rate.

The other aspect of communication is much better company-wide engagement. Previously, important company discussions were mostly held by management. The rest of the company had great ideas but since they weren’t actively engaged in the conversation there was much lost in translation. Now, with everyone having an active say in the company’s success, we catch problems faster, arrive at solutions quicker and start a project immediately to tackle the issue at hand.

This isn’t to say that a flat structure is the fix for all organizational issues. We’re still a relatively small company with an awesome team which makes for fertile ground for experiments like this. But the benefits far outweigh any negatives and so far, it’s been great working in such an environment.

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Pasan Premaratne

Pasan Premaratne is an Expert Teacher at Treehouse with a focus on Business. He has degrees in Finance and Economics and in his spare time loves learning everything on the planet from math, coding and economics to music, photography and more. Catch him on Twitter at @pasanpr.

Comments

4 comments on “Working in a Flat Company

  1. Awesome post and really a lot of true words. Thanks for this, mate :-)
    Although this wouldn’t fit to the company I am working at I can try pushing some, let’s say, ideas from this post into my teams heads…

    • If there’s one idea you should push, it’s that information shouldn’t be siloed among managers. There’s lots of value to be gained by having a transparent system. Thanks for reading! :)

  2. Great points. I actually think, if you have motivated employees, this might be the best structure out there. It most certainly gives your organization the most opportunity for creativity and innovation. I would mention that this structure NEEDS a vigilant pay distribution system. High fives and that feeling of success after proposing and completing a major project are all well and good until you realize your paycheck isn’t reflecting the value you’ve added to the company through your initiative. But hey, if you can give people freedom to innovate and then pay them for their success… that’s the dream.