There’s No Such Place As Flatland

Flatland is a book written by Edwin A. Abbott about a two-dimensional world in which the nobility suppress the truth of three dimensions for the purposes of keeping their world order. As much as the story of two dimensions is convenient and comforting to the citizens, it simply isn’t true. Rather than adapt to the reality of the world, the leadership goes to great lengths to suppress the truth and pacify the population. They don’t like that third dimension, so they pretend it isn’t there.

I am not a fan of, or believer in, flat organizational structures. Holacracy, a dialect of which we practiced at Zappos, is not flat by any means. But I also don’t believe that the places that claim to be flat (e.g., Valve, Treehouse) really are. The reality of any organization larger than a few people is that managers are a required (and desirable) feature. Calling them something else is just disingenuous.

No less than Google set out to prove that managers were evil a few years ago, but what they found surprised even them.

Google research found that not only are managers a critical component to corporate structure—but that good managers increased job satisfaction, retention and employment within their groups and the organization as a whole.

— Forbes: Google’s Failed Quest To Prove Managers Are Evil — And Why You Should Care

I suspect that in many cases, the term “manager” is interpreted to mean a caricature of a bumbling, micro-managing overseer. In reality, a good manager spends their “people” time on things like removing roadblocks, dealing with administrative issues, effective hiring, and mentoring employees on how best to achieve their objectives. None of that should fall on the shoulders of non-managers, if only because all require specialized skills that are definitely not universal. It also takes a great deal of time that other team members could be spending doing what they’re good at.

Indeed, the whole idea that a company of any size can run well without managers is non-sensical. Someone has to establish vision, coordinate parallel work, plan strategy, determine budgets, monitor progress of the larger whole, etc. Those are managerial activities, and the only way to remove the manager from that equation is to call her something else. She’s a mentor. He’s a cross-functional liaison. She’s a group representative to the council of elders.

Demonizing the overt manager is also dangerous because it leads to a hypocrisy of implied management by the most influential employees or, maybe worse, management by consensus. We do not want to walk into the operating room and have the surgeon ask everyone where they think she should start cutting. Likewise, a skilled manager has learned from experience what works, what doesn’t, and how to facilitate the best from his team.

Obviously, all of this presumes that the company hires good managers. The best engineer does not necessarily make the best engineering manager. There is often a tendency to promote people to their level of incompetency, and that leads to a perception that it is the role that’s the problem and not the person filling it. After all, she was the best engineer in the department. It is assumed that that she should therefore be the right person to lead the team. Unfortunately, while she might be an excellent lead engineer or architect, real management skills do not come naturally to everyone.

Instead of closing our eyes and wishing the often ambiguous, difficult, and required tasks of management away, we need to acknowledge management as a wide variety of disciplines best performed by experienced people with the specific skills necessary to do them well.

Companies should accept responsibility that a controlling, vindictive, or incompetent manager is no different than an engineer who can’t code. The problem is not with the job, it’s with the person filling it and the people who hired him. We needn’t try to pretend to eliminate a required function to achieve flexibility, autonomy, equitable treatment, or any of the other stated objectives of flat organizations. A flat company, like a flat world, is just fiction.



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