The waste of the “reverse” flat organization

by Jamie Flinchbaugh on 01-17-14

I recently wrote about whether “flat” organizational designs are flat or not, along with Zappos decision to eliminate managers. There are many reasons that they are not. But I’ve also encountered a different organizational design that I call the “reverse flat” organization.

In a flat organization, each manager has many direct reports.

In a “reverse flat” organization, you have many bosses.

Reverse flat orgThis is not the same thing as a matrix organizational, where you have bosses of different aspects, usually one for content and one for method. While a flat organization isn’t lean or not lean, but a reverse flat organization is decidedly not lean. It almost guarantees ambiguity. You will receive competing objectives, metrics, priorities, communication, feedback, and coaching. Many employees in this mode spend more energy, if not time, on managing the inherent conflicts than they do on delivering on their objectives.

So if you have this practice, stop.

If you do not have the power or authority to break this practice, then you need to put in place structure to manage the inherent conflict. Here are what I consider the two most essential elements of that structure:

1. High agreement

You must contract with each of the bosses about your role and your deliverables, and make that visible across the full set of businesses. Establishing a shared high agreement of both what will be delivered, and even how it will be delivered (down to the amount of time you spend on each “boss”) reduces ambiguity and the resulting confusion. Most of the time that people do contract in such a way, they treat them a 3 or 4 (or more) separate contracts. Instead, I suggest putting them all together a single framing of the role, and showing that to all the related parties. When someone sees the whole picture, they are more likely to help make it workable.

2. Conflict resolution

Regardless of how well you establish high agreement, you will still have conflicts and problems. Two of your bosses make requests with the same deadline that can’t both be fulfilled. You need a mechanism to resolve these conflicts, defined before the event occurs. This might be that when you trigger the mechanisms, two of the bosses discuss what is more important for the organization, or establish criteria that allows the decision to be made cleanly, or define a third-party that resolves conflicts. There is no natural mechanism because its not a natural design, but you want these mechanisms to exist before you need them.


  • I’m guessing I’m not the only person who had visions of the eight bosses telling Peter Gibbons about the new cover sheet for the TPS reports.

    Chad Walters January 17, 2014 at 2:16 am