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Flattened Management Hierarchies: 4 Steps to Flatten Your Organizational Structure for Better Team Building

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Flatten your organizational chart for better team building and morale

What comes to your mind when you see a hierarchical structure? 

Are you one of the many who find multinational or large companies appealing due to their business scale and work specialization? 

You need a hierarchy to get things done efficiently. But hierarchies don’t always produce optimal solutions to complex and challenging problems. Although a hierarchical structure connotes efficiency in operations and work productivity, sometimes solving issues requires looking past those hierarchies to encourage openness among your team members.

To be both efficient and effective, sometimes you need to flatten a hierarchy for a short period. You need to speak freely across and around prescribed channels, not through them.

Nate Garvis, the owner of Naked Civics (also the title of his book), flattened hierarchies in his former role as VP of Government Affairs at Target. He calls this process Strategic Inefficiency. He employed Strategic Inefficiency in one-on-one conversations with coworkers over coffee–when the purpose was to get to know each other, not discuss work products.

He also did this more formally each Monday during the global department meeting. In both coffee conversations and large department meetings, Garvis not only learned more with flattened hierarchies, he learned it more quickly.

Whether you call it Strategic Inefficiency or Flattening a Hierarchy, it works! 

Before we discuss how you can apply this strategy in your organization, let’s first have a quick run-through of what a flatter structure signifies.

What it means to have a flat structure

From my experience working in a hierarchical company, if one thing holds, it is the presence of authority across several departments as you climb your way up the corporate ladder.

Thus, once you remove a layer to flatten the organizational structure, the managing aspect or “span of control” rests on the remaining team leaders, who, in turn, will receive the burden of managing a handful of direct reports. This management challenge is evident among start-ups which are often in the transition period and where multi-tasking is also a severe problem. Team leaders and their members are juggling tasks as they try to strike a balance to perform each of their roles successfully. 

But having a flatter structure also presents some benefits to an employee and the company. Often, employees are given more freedom to take on the job and they can get a sense of ownership and responsibility in their work. Also, since the extra layers of management are removed, decisions on project administration do not take months to get approved which implies greater coordination and more open communication lines.

The remaining challenge to managers, however, is effective delegation and accountability among their employees. But that’s another story that I will discuss later in this article.

Now, going back to Flattening the Hierarchy which worked pretty well for Garvis, let’s get down to it.    

Let me break this down for you in steps so you can put it to use in your organization.



When you begin your meeting, according to Garvis, ask everyone to de-label from their roles. I remember this practice from psychodrama. You actually state, “I am not the VP of manufacturing (or whatever your title is at the time).”

With a crew the size Garvis led, this would be too cumbersome so he would simply remind all participants to de-label from their titles and roles. To him, this meant everyone at the meeting no longer had to observe hierarchical rules, and that everyone’s opinions carried equal weight. He said it takes a while for a team to get accustomed to interacting without their titles mattering.


The key here is to create a safe space for each team member by allowing them to               speak their minds without fear of getting judged or rejected.

Before diving headlong into the meeting, Garvis would ask people to share something personal about themselves so that the team would see beyond the hierarchy. They would begin to see each other as equals.

By encouraging everyone to share, you break the ice and try to build a common ground that helps remove personal or professional barriers. The key here is to create a safe space for each team member by allowing them to speak their minds without fear of getting judged or rejected. 


Garvis is extremely right-brained and probably generated an infinite number of great ideas for his team, but he knows that great ideas aren’t enough. They must be challenged and fully accepted.

In a hierarchical structure like Target, it is very difficult to challenge your boss’s ideas. Flattening a hierarchy allows critical feedback to happen. When everyone has de-labeled, they can say what they really think. Ideas get fire-tested, and acceptance is earned.

At first, Strategic Inefficiency did not go well, so Garvis amped up the message with incentives to teammates who did the best job of challenging his ideas. The one with the best critique got a prize. As soon as they could see he was serious about this feedback, they saw it was safe to provide the same feedback to one another. This dramatically changed the culture of his department.

When you encourage your team members to freely challenge your opinions, you get a diverse perspective that can lead to an effective and more practical solution.  


Once critical feedback has been given and rewarded, it’s time to re-label. With hierarchical titles and roles reestablished, work can be done efficiently through familiar and prescribed channels.

Follow through with the flattening of your company’s hierarchy by keeping open communication lines and recognizing the value of teamwork in accomplishing your goals. Trust your team to fulfill their roles but be ready to offer support in areas they need help. Also, practice regular check-ins or catch-up conversations with your team to ensure that you’re achieving the purpose of flattening your organization’s hierarchy. 

Nate credits Strategic Inefficiency for many innovative breakthroughs at Target. I have recommended this approach to clients, and they, too, find it very effective.

Bonus Tip: How to effectively delegate and make your flattened structure work for you

As a manager, the last thing you want is to get swamped with the little things concerning your office, which eats up a lot of your time. Such time must be spent addressing more serious problems that are more difficult to delegate.

Here are some strategies to make delegating easier for you. 

  1. Lay down the tasks to be done
  2. Distribute the tasks among your employees
  3. Identify the potential rewards once the tasks are completed
  4. Communicate the tasks and the point persons

Studies suggest that employees give their best effort if they have a degree of freedom in their role and when these psychological factors are present in their job or company: self-actualization, sense of control, attachment, engagement, and less fear.  

Try flattening a hierarchy within your organization. If you have tried or have techniques to share, please post them here.


  1. What are the 4 types of organizational structures?

There are 4 general types of organizational structures - functional, divisional, matrix, and flat. In a functional structure, employees are grouped based on their specialization such as sales and marketing, accounting and finance, etc. While in a divisional structure, the grouping of employees is based on the products or services a company offers to its clients. 

The hybrid of functional and divisional structures forms a more complex organization, which is the matrix. It initially groups the employees according to function, and further into divisions - depending on the company’s products and services. Finally, the flat structure is when management and decision-making deeply involve its employees, thus, removing bureaucracy and enhancing communication.   

  1. What are the features of a flat organizational structure?

A flat organizational structure has the following features: few levels and decentralized management, broad job descriptions of employees and managers, flexible boundaries among jobs and units, team-oriented, and customer-focused.

  1. What are the advantages of flat organizations?

Several businesses benefit from having a flat organization. The key advantages of a flat structure are low maintenance and operating costs, effective communication among employees and managers, and it gives a sense of empowerment to employees that leads to their enhanced creativity and motivation.

Flatten the hierarchies in your organization as easily as these coins.

Photo Credit : Reed Probus


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