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This Is Not Your Dad’s Org Chart

I was sitting in the reclining leather chair in my therapist’s office receiving support with some struggles I’ve been having at work. I told her that even though we tell the story that the company is a flat organization, and even though we have no official org charts, there is definitely a hierarchy and an invisible org chart.

She laughed, “You’re the third person today who has told me that their employer is supposed to have a flat hierarchy but that it’s actually hierarchical. Why do you think it’s like that in Silicon Valley?”

I’m sure that many Silicon Valley companies truly are both hierarchical in some ways and flat in others. On the one hand, anyone can usually raise an issue or drive an important initiative, which is important to be able to thrive in a rapidly evolving environment. On the other hand, the old-world idea that there needs to be a command and control structure persists. There’s an embedded belief that someone must ultimately be in control, and ultimately that’s the stakeholders (which often actually includes a lot of “low-level” employees).

Since I speak with a lot of people across Silicon Valley, I’m aware of many different perspectives. Here are some hypotheses for this apparent paradox arising in Silicon Valley companies:

  • The organization embodies a combative/conflict-avoidant polarization, so the loudest voices can be heard no matter what organizational level they’re coming from.
  • The CEO (or other leader) wants to feel in control. Having no official hierarchy enables her to either empower or disempower anyone rapidly. Unfortunately, as a traditionally-structured company becomes very large, it’s not possible for one person to effectively operate it without thoroughly effective, and fully empowering, delegation into a clearly defined org structure.
  • Younger generations seem to be seeing through the self-deluding idea that you get control by trying to be in control. As we see with movements like Holocracy, leadership wisdom has been moving up an octave: true control comes from nurturing autonomy (i.e. letting go). To attract top talent, companies have to at least appear to be playing the game.
  • Even though people are officially managers, they’re often not really managing; they’re more like technical leads. They’re often not willing, able, and/or incentivized to carry out the actual functions of management, which leads to the apparent management structure being non-operational. Also, because in functional engineering teams the best approach nearly always wins, there is often not even much of a technical hierarchy.

These are just some examples. There are many other reasons that a company might struggle with its identity in relation to internal hierarchy. For a complete diagnosis, each company must be examined carefully by spending time talking candidly with its employees at all levels.

It seems that one of the main reasons that leaders shun org charts and hierarchy is that they can be very misleading. An org chart is usually drawn with the CEO at the top, the VPs below her, and so on down. This top-down configuration has led to, and reinforces, the notion that the CEO is in charge and that people further “down” the hierarchy have less control and/or authority. In my mind, the true, and critical, purpose of an org chart is to clarify who is responsible for what. The perverse misuse of org charts is to simply display power and authority.

I personally believe that org charts can be very useful, and I think that hierarchy, when effectively applied, can be helpful. However, I believe that we’ve been drawing org charts upside-down for the past few hundred years. In my world, the CEO should be at the bottom, the VPs above her, and so on up.

The org chart then shows that the CEO supports and encourages the whole organization to flourish (to bloom). The CEO provides a solid foundation upon which the upper layers can rest. The CEO is the root. The CEO is the source. The CEO defines what the whole company will look like, but not by sitting atop it and controlling it like an elephant. The CEO directs the company’s destiny through the white-space, through what she allows, supports, and encourages. There is only so much you can make people do, but there is an infinite amount of possibility in what people will and can do, when supported and encouraged.

At the top of the org chart are the individual contributors. Hopefully, leadership skills, and wise hiring practices, enable there to be many more of these than managers. The company is like a tree, or even a sea anemone with its thousands of sensitive antennae. Each little antennae is taking in nutrients and expelling waste, interacting with the ecosystem in which the company exists. These little tentacles are also the nerve endings of the organism, sensing subtle changes in the environment and signally threats and opportunities back down through the management branches to whatever level that information is needed for effective larger-context decisions to be made.

The CEO and other leaders don’t make decisions in a vacuum. The primary source of business information and signals needed to make decisions is the top of the tree, the individual contributors. In some cases, the CEO herself may operate as an individual contributor, sensing the temperature of the water around her root location. However, most of the useful information will usually come from the individual contributors.

The degree to which information does not flow down the org chart, towards the CEO, is the degree to which the CEO and other leaders are effectively flying blind, making decisions on hunches, at the whim of random luck.

The further down the leadership tree we go, the more important it is for the employee to do less, to take less action, and to listen and support more. As we approach the base of the tree, and the CEO, we reach an employee who is rooted in the core principles of the company, who is channeling value to the stakeholders, and who is almost exclusively making extremely broad-context decisions on masses of information that ultimately originated from individual contributors.

This is why senior leadership does, and should, get be paid the big bucks: not because they’re geniuses at everything, but because they have developed the rarified skill of listening carefully and intently, synthesizing enormous amounts of data, and supporting and encouraging large groups of people to fulfill their maximized potential.

This is not your dad’s org chart.

Or is it?

In reality, I would argue that all companies must, optimally, operate as I have described. I believe that for hundreds of years companies has survived and sometimes done pretty well in spite of fighting against the reality that I have laid out above, in spite of org charts being incessantly drawn upside-down, and in spite of a fundamental misunderstanding of the roles and responsibilities of leaders and those they lead.

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