Flat company or self-managed community?

Written by Benjamin Garnier, on 01 August 2019

In conversation with my retired uncle, I was explaining to him that I had changed employers because I wanted to try the experience of working in a flat hierarchy company. When I described its characteristics to him, he simply replied, "It sounds like the self-managed communities that were established after '68. It didn't really work out."

This comparison surprised me. So, I reflected on it and wondered what makes flat hierarchy companies work (for example, Harley-Davidson began its transformation almost 40 years ago) while self-managed communities eventually disappeared.

Before sharing my thoughts, I want to clarify that I haven't taken the time to research self-managed communities. I discussed them in my youth with one of my high school teachers who had experienced them. And that's my only knowledge of such a structure. Therefore, this analysis will be quite empirical.

Firstly, is the comparison justified?

I believe so. In these two social constructions, the basic idea is to have freedom of creation and proposal for each individual. Everyone is free to present their ideas without going through a hierarchy, which often doesn't exist anyway.

However, these organizations are not synonymous with anarchy. Therefore, we must convince others of the value of our ideas. This makes the decision-making process longer than in conventional structures where there's always someone to make the final call. Finally, these constructions foster accountability. Thus, once accepted by the organization, each individual is responsible for realizing their idea.

So, what are the differences? Why does one seem to work while the other doesn't?

For me, it comes down to one thing: a common goal!

A flat hierarchy company remains a company, and therefore its goal is to endure over time. This requires a simple objective: to be profitable. Moreover, in the company where I work, two additional goals complement this: ensuring customer satisfaction and ensuring employee satisfaction. These three objectives are shared by everyone, and the ideas proposed align with achieving at least one of these objectives.

Self-managed communities did not share common objectives. I think the sole objective was to establish a self-managed structure that allowed everyone to flourish. The problem is that once the community was established, there were no common objectives anymore. So, individual objectives became the driving force for members. Naturally, this doesn't last, as at some point, the community becomes a hindrance to achieving these personal objectives.

In other words, the creation of the community was the goal of its members. Conversely, flattening the hierarchy in a company is only a means to achieve a broader goal shared by its members. Or, to put it another way, self-managed communities lived in the present while flat hierarchy companies are built for the future.