8 crucial points to consider when transitioning from a hierarchy to flat organisational structure

Many organisations around the world have been transitioning to a flatter organisational structure to help them utilise the matrix model, which enables their teams to be more agile in their business operations.

Below are some of the things to consider during the transition, and below that are links to valuable related articles.

1. Align your team

The old hierarchy:

  • Each team worked in their own vertical silo.
  • Information and resources were seldom shared across teams.
  • Some teams worked on and delivered similar projects separately.
  • Staff, and teams, only took responsibility for tasks that fell within their job title.
  • Decisions took a long time to be made, moving up and down the chain.

The new flat: 

  • All staff are aligned and grouped into project teams responsible for helping to achieve the organisation’s project outcomes.
  • Managers (functional/line) coordinate staff towards achieving project outcomes and provide them with useful resources and clear direction.

The challenge:

  • Many staff are used to working in silos and not across teams.
  • Tools and resources are not set up to accommodate cross-team collaboration.

Actions to consider:

  • Project outcomes need to be super clear for the entire team to take effective action.
  • Strategic partners and customer groups that you are developing high quality relationships with need to be clearly understood.
  • Strong leadership is required to support and lead teams and decision-makers must align priorities and workflows regarding project outcomes.
  • Staff are empowered to make decisions when working together to achieve project outcomes.

2. Support staff working locations

The old hierarchy:

  • Staff were allocated specific desks with fixed phone numbers in set physical locations.

The new flat:

  • Staff can move between locations to collaborate with different team members on different projects when required.

The challenge:

  • Staff are not used to being flexible beyond their initial team.
  • Staff need to be able to find each other quickly when collaborating on projects or seeking information.
  • Staff require adequate resources to be able to do their work when working in different locations together or remotely.

Actions to consider:

  • Use communication tools that utilise mobile devices.
  • Be efficient when utilising the toolbox system.
  • Make sure adequate resources are available in the environments where teams meet and collaborate on specific projects.
  • Utilise cloud technology.

3. Nurture cultural shift

The old hierarchy:

  • The way staff work is dictated by an established bureaucratic process.

The new flat:

  • Staff decide how to best work together to achieve project outcomes in an effective and efficient manner.
  • Knowledge gained by the project group is shared with the broader team.

The challenge:

  • Staff who have not worked in a fluid, agile environment, will seek the security and safety of process. They may not take responsibility, action or try more effective ways of working together with the team to achieve a project outcome.

Actions to consider:

  • Define which staff prefer to be directed and which staff take initiative.
  • Coordinate project teams based on this knowledge and outcomes desired.
  • Put workflows in place that gradually train staff to move from bureaucratic conditioning to agile thinking and action.
  • Introduce a framework to help guide team development for projects.

4. Change the Status Quo

The old hierarchy:

  • The old hierarchy hired people based on what tasks were required to maintain the status quo focusing on what’s always been done in the past rather than what needs to be done to move the business forward and adjust to changing customer needs and expectations. Limited resources were then allocated towards the support of staff to maintain the status quo.

The new flat:

  • The new flat requires thought leaders and information managers to help feed the project teams with accurate and useful information that keeps the business flexible and moving forward.

The challenge:

  • Most staff find comfort in doing what’s familiar, which doesn’t encourage moving the business forward as the customer’s needs and expectations change. It’s challenging to step outside their comfort zone.

Actions to consider:

  • Repetitive tasks need to be automated, to free up staff to work on designing and developing for the next project outcomes.
  • Project life cycles are mapped and projects coordinated to help team members know when they can contribute most to planning,  production, delivery, or evaluation of desired, new and existing projects.

5. Utilise matrix communication and collaboration tools

The old hierarchy:

  • Staff worked within their team silos, therefore did not need to communicate broadly or collaborate with teams outside their silo.

The new flat:

  • Staff collaborate and communicate with different teams depending on projects they are working on and skills and resources they can tap in to and leverage from both internally and externally through strategic partnerships and customer assets.

The challenge:

  • Legacy communication tools are not fit for purpose for collaborative project communication where multiple people may need to be engaged at different stages of a project; accountable, responsible, consulted, informed. You’ll see the number of emails increase (and slow production) as staff cc everyone in who they think may need to be informed on a project.

Actions to consider:

  • Use flat structure collaboration and communication tools that enable all project team members to be able to see and collaborate on tasks at any time through the lifecycle of the project.

6. Utilise agile teams

The old hierarchy:

  • Staff wait for instructions. (Reactive.)
  • Staff responsibilities are dictated by a chain of command.

The new flat:

  • Staff are provided with specific goals and useful information, and take initiative to form teams and work together using each other’s strengths to achieve project outcomes. (Proactive.)
  • The matrix structure helps make this workflow more effective.
  • Agile teams with clear direction work more efficiently than teams in silos.

The challenge:

  • Staff who are not familiar with working in agile teams, or who have been given instructions their entire working life, find the new structure chaotic. If there’s no clear project objectives or customer groups, you’ll hear these staff asking for role clarity.

Actions to consider:

  • Make sure project initiatives and outcomes are extremely clear and gradually train staff to take more initiative to contribute to achieving project outcomes.
  • Celebrate and reward teams that achieve project outcomes and share information on how they worked together.
  • New hires are immediately encouraged to use the matrix model and team resources to achieve project outcomes, rather than given a RACI list or list of tasks to keep them ‘busy’.
  • Mentor and train staff.

7. Utilise a combination of marketing and communication types

The old hierarchy:

  • Heavily biased towards relying on brand and push marketing
  • The marketing team controls all communications, creating a bottleneck and slowing communication.

The new flat:

In addition to brand marketing, agile organisations utilise onmi-channel marketing tools to nurture high quality relationships with customers:

  • Inbound and attraction marketing
  • Content, digital and direct marketing
  • Relationship marketing
  • Experiential marketing

The marketing team empowers staff by providing tools and resources that helps staff do their own marketing and communication activities within style guides and helping staff stay strongly on theme and message.

The challenge:

  • Most staff see marketing as ‘promoting’ something. They don’t look beyond the traditional brand marketing activities.
  • Decisions made are based heavily on ‘demographic’ data, rather than combining a mix of sources, such as psychographic data, social habits and filtered for purpose big data.
  • Marketing teams want to control the process.

Actions to consider:

  • Educate staff about different types of marketing that can be used to achieve project outcomes and to build high-quality relationships, internally and externally with customer groups and strategic partners.
  • Put tools in place that help team members with their marketing.

8. Learn from leading and influential corporations

The old hierarchy:

  • Focused on and benchmarked against other business and competitors within the same industry.

The new flat:

  • In a dynamic, competitive world staff incorporate ideas from other organisations that will best serve our customers, reach project outcomes and improve our business.

The challenge:

  • Staff often only look at organisations who work in the same industry; ideas are recycled but not improved upon.

Actions to consider:

  • Teams need to learn from leading organisations outside of their initial industry and see what we can learn and apply to our business. This helps you innovate.

Concluding thought

If your organisation is transitioning to a flatter organisational structure, consider what resources you can put in place to help make the transition happen as smoothly as possible. Good luck!

Useful references – rather than filter by category, it’s better that you explore and discover information. This helps you escape from you bubble and innovate your thinking.

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