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Flat vs. Tall: What’s the Ideal Structure for Your Organization?

By Faizan Raza, writer
Apr 08, 2016
Image Credit: Prostock-Studio / Getty Images
> Business Basics

To create a company that has the potential to upset an existing industry and create a lasting impact on the world, your corporate culture absolutely has to be unique, inspiring and challenging.

Everything from the dress code to the layout of your office will directly impact the way your team operates, and the way your company is perceived in the market. Remember, finding people as passionate about a product as its founder is rare.

Financial incentives are one of the key ways to build excitement and give early members of a team a sense of ownership in they brand they’re creating. But, as it turns out, it's also about the structure and management that becomes the lifeblood of the company culture. 

Related Article: Manager, Coach or Mentor? Different Roles for Different Goals 

Flat Structure vs. Bureaucracy 

Mark Cuban is often cited as one of the biggest proponents of a flat management structure for an early-stage startup.

Having a team of energized, talented people with defined areas of responsibility can minimize the need for layer upon layer of bureaucracy.

Remember, the reason big companies fail is that they focus too much on committees and internal politics, while losing sight of the unique value their product offers the consumer. 

Bureaucracy Makes Servicing a Customer More Difficult 

One of the problems with having layer upon layer of leadership is that customer issues become more complex.

Customer-facing members of your team need the authority to act quickly to save a customer.

When things go wrong, or a customer perceives an issue, your repeat business from that client is in serious jeopardy.

How your organization reacts will decide how that customer chooses to spend their money in the future. 

In a bureaucracy, the decision to fix a customer issue, and the steps involved rapidly multiply.

In a flatter organizational chart, employees have the ability to empower themselves, or immediately gain one-time authority from a superior to take care of the customer. 

Flat Organizational Structures May Be Too Fast to Control 

Think about the last time you went to a drive-thru and ordered a calorie-laden burger.

If you had a nutritional advisory panel, along with an Executive VP in charge of energy quality sitting in the passenger seat, the decision to eat something that is bad for your health would have likely been blocked by the wisdom and self-control of the organization. 

Related Article: Break Free from Performance Management Shackles: Companies That Are Paving the Way

Using the same metaphor, in a flat organizational structure there is generally less oversight and outside input on decisions made.

It would be far easier to grab the burger, without anyone giving the decision a second thought.

You’d be able to enjoy a guilt-free burger, at least until you hopped on the scale a few days later. 

The challenge of a flat leadership structure lies in balancing the need for oversight with the need for speed and efficiency.

Without enough oversight, decisions that may be good for the individual in the short-term, but harm the group in the long-term can slip by. 

Bureaucracy Gives Executives More Control Over Brand and Customer Experience 

The impact of a wise, talented executive team can be more fully felt in a taller organization chart.

The thoughts and decisions of executive management can be easily communicated to mid-level management, who can then reach out to supervisors and carefully make sure the vision of management is followed. 

The added accountability and opportunity for monitoring is a definite strength of a bureaucratic structure.

However, in some situations, it’s possible that a flat structure can be successful in executing as well.

For a flat organization to execute the vision of a founder reliably, the organization needs to be relatively small and easy for a founder or leader to oversee the entire operation. 

Depending on the energy level of the leadership team, it may be easier to run things through bureaucratic channels.

A high-energy team could get the same quality of execution in a flatter structure, but the risk of a failure in proper execution is higher. 

Related Article: Which Team Member Are You? Identifying Your Project Management Style

Is There Really a Perfect Organization Structure for Every Business? 

Part of the beauty of building a new organization to accomplish a goal is that you’re free to experiment.

While the risks bring with them both potential financial loss and reward, trying new things is what has made the entrepreneurial spirit so resilient in even the roughest of economies.  

Focus on core competencies; understand employee strengths and empower them to execute on those strengths.

You’ll be surprised at how powerful a team can be when their unshackled from restrictive process and chains of command.

There needs to be clear leadership, but if you hire the right people, you’ll simply need to point the ship in the right direction and everyone will pull together at the oars to build a killer product or solution. 

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Faizan Raza
Faizan Raza
See Faizan Raza's Profile
I love business authors, publishing, and talking incessantly about them. My passion is partnering with authors to bring worthwhile content to publication. I started this blog as a way to create a community of writers, both published and seeking publication.
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