Flatter is Better

In a recent email to Tesla employees, founder and CEO Elon Musk wrote “Anyone at Tesla can and should email/talk to anyone else according to what they think is the fastest way to solve a problem for the benefit of the whole company.” Musk didn’t want employees to feel like they had to struggle through a complicated bureaucratic structure to do the right things for the right reasons. He wanted to flatten his company.


Flattening takes away needless oversight, approvals and procedures. Flattening assumes that members of your staff are intelligent, caring and responsible, that they want to do a good job and help the company. Flattening provides ways for employees to be transparent with each other, to collaborate with each other, and to find opportunities for improvement and expediency.

At the Microsoft Ignite 2017 conference I attended in Orlando, FL last week, we talked a lot about how technological tools can help us flatten our organization. Microsoft Teams is a robust chat tool for our inner loop, the people we work and collaborate with the most, the people with whom we create the most velocity. Yammer connects us to the outer loop, the teams beyond our team, and let’s us see and connect to work being done throughout our organization. Office 365 Groups enables collaboration using email and file libraries. Sharepoint sites and file libraries provide a suite of sharing and collaboration tools, and a connection to the outer loop of your organization, and the outer loop beyond your organization.

At one of the learning sessions at Microsoft Ignite, Cai Kjaer from Swoop Analytics offered an exercise to help us see how flatter is better. He created two groups of attendees. Group A had 10 people, Group B had 12 people. Each group was assigned the task of lining up in order of birthday month. Group A was assigned to organize themselves, Group B was assigned to allow two of the members to be in charge of organizing the other 10. Sadly, I was a leader of Group B, and I failed miserably.

Not only did Group A finish first, but Group B barely had a chance to even begin. Due to the bureaucracy that was put into place for Group B, we first had to establish rules. Leaders had to assess the situation, determine who was in the group, and then get everyone organized. Group A, on the other hand, just coordinated and collaborated on their own, and got organized within seconds. If we were working at Tesla, the leaders of Group B would, as Musk says in his email to employees, “soon find themselves working at another company. No kidding.”

Our organizations become more flexible, more powerful, and achieve greater results when employees are empowered to make (some, not all) meaningful connections, decisions and changes independently of supervisor oversight or bureaucratic red tape.

It is not enough to only install the technological tools that enable flattening. Use of the tools need to be strongly endorsed by leadership, and an attitude of transparency, collaboration and working out loud needs to be adopted and practiced by leadership as an example for the entire staff. Elon Musk writes “managers should work hard to ensure that they are not creating silos within the company that create an us vs. them mentality or impede communication in any way. This is unfortunately a natural tendency and needs to be actively fought.”

Flatter is better. Embrace flat.


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