The guide to organisation structures (flat vs hierarchical)

Is it time to redesign your organisational structure? Though many companies can benefit from a restructuring, fewer than a quarter of organisational redesigns actually succeed. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Organisations can undergo successful restructuring as long as they understand the differences between organisational structures (flat, hierarchical, matrix etc)— namely, their benefits and their drawbacks.

Why structure?

An organisation’s structure forms the very basis of its operations. Not only does it inform employees regarding who they answer to, but it also identifies core decision makers and defines the company culture. Without structure – even a loose structure – there can be no decision-making and no accountability.

However, the type of structure is often up for debate. Most businesses either operate on a flat structure or a hierarchical structure, depending on their needs.

Flat organisational structures

Flat organisational structures forego the concept of middle management entirely. Instead, staff members exist directly under executives, often working in teams rather than independently. Flat organisational structures may still include ‘team leaders,’ but these leaders will generally shift on a per project basis. During times of business growth, these teams may change substantially.

Ideally, a flat organisational structure is designed to empower individual staff members. As they must take on a greater role within the business, they become personally motivated to succeed. Without middle managers, there also exists no additional layer between the executive level and the staff level – making it easier to communicate and adapt.

Valve Corporation, a leading video game developer and digital distribution system, is one of the best-known examples of a large organisation that operates on the flat hierarchical model. Rather than assigning permanent managerial staff, Valve rotates its leaders on a per-project, per-team basis. Rather than creating permanent departments, Valve allows its employees to choose the type of work that they want to do.

With approximately 250 employees and an estimated worth of $2 to $4 billion, Valve is considered one of the most successful companies within its industry. CEO Gabe Newell reports that the company is more profitable per employee than either Google or Apple. At the same time, its flat management hierarchy has been the target of intense and widely publicised criticism in the past. It is also possible its structure is so successful because the company is comparatively small.

Many of the criticisms levied upon Valve are the same criticisms levied against flat organisational structures in general. Failing the development of an official management structure, an unofficial management structure will often arise. Instead of being told who to report to, employees may begin looking towards arbitrarily selected authorities for their cues. These authority figures are often selected due to their seniority or connections within the company, and may not necessarily be those best suited to the role.

Hierarchical organisational structures

In a hierarchical structure, an organisation is comprised of multiple layers. Every employee within the organisation answers to someone, with the CEO generally being at the very top. At the very bottom, entry-level staff members may answer to multiple managers, supervisors, and executives.

Hierarchical structures have several advantages. In a hierarchical structure, employees know where to look for in terms of direction and they know whom they report to. Employees can focus on simpler tasks, rather than having to self-motivate and self-organise. Employees also have something to work towards, as they may be able to climb the hierarchy in time. This type of organisation is highly structured, so that business growth provides very limited disruption.

With over 1.5 million employees in the United States alone, Walmart has been able to leverage its hierarchical structure to create consistency and efficiency throughout thousands of branches. At the bottom of the hierarchy are cashiers, stockers, and sales associates. At a level above them are customer service supervisors and merchandise supervisors.

These supervisors fall under a management trainee, which in turn falls under the assistant manager, co-manager, and general manager. On a regional level there will be a market manager, operations manager, or state general manager. And all of this falls under the existing executive-level hierarchy for the corporation itself.

It’s understandable that this type of organisational structure could be seen as quite unwieldy, especially for smaller businesses. A hierarchical structure is often slower to react and adapt than a flat structure, and departments are often forced to operate independently. The increased administrative time may also lead to substantially higher overhead.

Other types of organisational structures

Though flat and hierarchical organisational structures are the most popular, there are other alternatives. One such model is the “holacracy” model, developed by HolacracyOne, LLC and famously adopted by Zappos. Holacracy operates through teams rather than a management hierarchy, putting an emphasis on self-management on an individual level.

This model is designed to empower employees to advance their own goals in the ways that they see fit. However, with this much emphasis on personal responsibility and motivation, holacracy is a structural model that depends highly on the individuals within it.

What’s your structure?

What type of organisational structure does your business use? Is it as effective as you hoped? Organisation restructuring is common as a business goes through periods of growth. Often, when inefficiencies begin to arise in the usual business process, it’s time to reconsider how business-as-usual is run.

It’s important to note, however, that there isn’t a ‘perfect’ structure to fit each company. It’s about understanding your business strategy, the direction and the overall vision of your business. The structure chosen needs to be a cultural fit, but also allows facilitates the growth trajectory desired by the business.

If you’d like to learn more about organisational structures, or want to share your thoughts on this topic, contact us here.