Beyond a "Flat Hierarchy" in Business

I had an interesting lunch with Don Yates and Chris Yeh the other day. Don is an HBS grad and UCLA PhD in Management Science who’s now a management consultant with an admittidly radical philosophy. I described Chris here. Don’s fundamental premise is this: command-and-control, hierarchical, boss/subordinate management is dead wrong. The culture of an "extraordinary organization" embraces:

  • freedom
  • equality
  • community
  • individual fulfillment

replacing the current culture of:

  • command
  • control
  • hierarchy
  • class structure
  • people as means to organizational ends

He recently profiled an organization embracing this culture, and this was the bait that got me interested in Don. The Sudbury Valley School is a charter school in MA that has no "teachers" or "principal," just independent kids from ages 4-19 who show up each day and decide what to do. They can fish all day if they want or they can ask an adult to teach them math. Every school rule is decided at a School Meeting in which each student and adult has one vote. When a student feels like s/he is ready to move on, he writes a thesis and paper explaining why he thinks he’s ready to graduate. The Assembly (Board of Trustees) considers the thesis and may issue a diploma. 80% of the students go on to college. Talk about changing the paradigm. Don wants to spread this model to more for-profit companies. He scoffs as the recent trend of "empowering" employees because that indicates that there is someone who is in power to do the empowering! He scoffs at the idea of "flat hierarchies" – indeed, he sees no middle ground. Either the paradigm shifts or it doesn’t. Either self-managed work groups and a workplace where everyone is equal becomes the culture, or it doesn’t. How in the world do decisions get made in an environment like this? Majority-rules, consensus-based decisions with an emphasis on retaining the hearts and minds of the minority. How do you ever find consensus? By getting at the core of a person’s belief system. Don believes that by asking "why do you believe that?" four times you arrive at someone’s core beliefs which probably unknowingly drive everything. It’s hard to get your head around a totally radical way of thinking about management, but it makes you think. And that’s a good thing.

One Response to Beyond a "Flat Hierarchy" in Business

  1. Will Pate says:

    In the long run young entrepreneurs/managers like us will benefit from learning about concepts like this early in our careers. Imagine how many missed prospective hires and needless losses of talented people we can avoid.

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