The Complexity We Solve For

From global enterprise systems to startups, companies are working in the most complex and rapidly shifting environment ever. With the unprecedented level of global connectivity and technological innovation, what will happen tomorrow is anyone’s guess. Organizations that can’t be responsive to their customers and the market will be left in the dust. You’ve probably heard the staggering statistic that the average life expectancy of a company in the S&P 500 is now hovering around 15 years. This is serious.

In response to this external complexity, we increasingly see companies leveraging the power of flat teams. Structuring for horizontal teams allow us to bring together far-flung expertise in the organization, be more responsive to customer needs and changes in the environment, or just get things done quickly without getting lost in the bureaucracy of our organizations. By design, these teams hold the promise of agility, innovation, and speed, the magic trifecta in today’s rapidly shifting markets. 

We structure these teams horizontally because we recognize that the unique perspective and knowledge of each member of that team is required to address the complexity of their task. We recognize no one person has the ability or insight sufficient to successfully tell the group how to solve the problem or accomplish the task. 


Defining Flat Teams



Flat teams appear in many forms. They are named as matrix teams, temporary cross-functional project teams, Z-teams, pods, and leadership teams. At the extreme edges, they constitute the core organizing logic of the organizational structure in self-managed organizations using frameworks like Holacracy.

Regardless of organizational type, what makes these teams and their challenges unique is the absence of clear command-and-control or hierarchy of authority within the group. Flat teams are teams in which the group as a whole is held accountable for their performance and cannot rely on one member of the group to provide instructions or fiat for the group to follow.


Your Team is Not a Machine 

Many companies default to thinking about teams as if they are machines to which we can apply rules, processes, and roles as inputs and expect predictable and successful outputs. We hunker down to answer the pressing questions: What roles will be represented? For what will the team be accountable? How we will evaluate the team’s performance? How will the team communicate its progress and request resources from the organization? In essence, we define the rules of engagement.


The Complexity We Introduce

While these are all critical questions, if we stop here, we run the risk of failure. For just as we have introduced a solution to respond to complexity of the outside world, we have introduced a new complexity into the inner world of the team and its members; we introduce interpersonal and emotional complexity. 

For decades, corporate culture has been built on the assumption that most people agree to show up to work every day and do what they are told. Within that agreement, we have become so accustomed to the paternalistic mental models of how we relate to one another that it is almost rendered invisible to us. 

As direct reports, we become practiced in the art of becoming smaller than we really are, taking refuge in the shadows of the leaders above us. We take comfort in knowing it is not our fault the strategy didn’t work (“If only the boss would listen to me, I would tell them what I think.”) and that we don’t have the authority to hold our colleagues accountable (“I’m not their manager; it’s not my place to say it.”). And as managers and leaders, we over-rely on our role-authority (“Because I said so, that’s why.”) and overlook the critical insights available to us from the front lines.

And then suddenly, and most often without acknowledging that this is also part of the contract we have redesigned, we ask people to show up to work, not as parent and child, but as adults working with adults.

It’s Not All About Structure

When we stop our efforts to redesign our work structure, we overlook the most fundamental part of our abilities to be creative, responsive, and resilient: the humans at work.  As we work to create environments that enable companies to leverage the brilliance of everyone who walks through the door, we can’t overlook the importance of building the confidence, courage, and skills for team members to step up and step out as they work in the brave new world of teams.

So where to begin?

In subsequent articles, I will be sharing our observations on the skills that enable flat teams to thrive and some simple frameworks flat teams can use to practice their way into new ways of working together. Stay tuned!

Nina Narelle is a Consultant at XPLANE.