What does it actually mean to have a flat organization

I regularly talk to founders and leaders about how they run their organizations and there is something interesting I bump into from time to time: leaders of small to mid-size companies or teams, just starting up and working on innovative products or projects, tell me that their company is ‘flat’. 

They sense that they do something differently, that they have innovative ways of running their companies, and they’ve probably heard the term flat in various contexts before. And so, since they don’t have any hierarchy they assume they must be flat.

They are indeed flat in a sense of not having a hierarchy, however, I find it very interesting that it’s not always clear what exactly is meant by a ‘flat organization’. To explain the difference between a traditional organization based on hierarchy and a flat organization without one, I usually use an analogy in which traditional hierarchies are like intersections with traffic lights while flat organizations are like roundabouts.

In a crossroad with traffic lights it’s very clear what you need to do: a light indicates if you have to stop, if you need to slow down or you can go. The system runs automatically, prevents accidents, and is quite easy to understand. You know what to do and when to do it. It’s based on the principles of command, control, and compliance. And we all know how people react at a crossroads when someone doesn’t start to go as soon as the light turns green – it’s quite easy to spot the same kind of frustration in organizations as well. It’s an efficient system: much more efficient than not having anything at all or having a policeman in the middle of the street giving directions. However, with heavier traffic it can become very slow, traffic jams can occur, and wait times, as well as driver frustration, can grow quickly.

Roundabouts are designed differently: drivers can make the decision about when to stop and when to go. A roundabout is not an intersection without any rules, but rather it’s carefully designed while still giving drivers freedom. Of course there are certain rules: you have to slow down or stop before entering, you have to pay much more attention to the other cars on the road, you have to indicate if you want to leave the roundabout, and you need to give priority to the circulating flow. Roundabouts feel much more natural: they allow for a more efficient flow of traffic, wait times get shorter, and the cost of maintaining them is far less than for a crossroad. Replacing intersections with roundabouts is a way of getting rid of big traffic jams as well, giving flow and movement to previously clogged roads. And yes, I might have recently read an entire Wikipedia article on the history of roundabouts.

I like this analogy because it shows not only the nature, but also the advantages, of flat organizations. They are not organizations without rules. Rather, they are organizations with a carefully designed, different set of rules based on freedom, autonomy, and responsibility. Thanks to these rules, flat organizations find ways to operate in a system of self-organizing ‘circles’ in such a way that people pay attention to each other and collaborate instead of functioning in hierarchies, where the layer above gives the traffic signals to the layer below.

Just like in a roundabout, in flat organizations people decide what to do only after considering what others are doing. Many processes of flat organizations are designed to ensure that colleagues pay attention to each other. For example, the fact that anyone in a self-managing team can make any decision doesn’t mean that they can just do whatever they want. There are different kinds of advice processes through which the person making the decision needs to consult all parties impacted and the decision maker needs to take the advice of people with more experience or expertise into account when making the decision. This is such an important foundation of their functioning that not following the advice process is one of the reasons you might get fired from a self-managing organization.

Flat organizations are similar to roundabouts in their efficiency as well: they allow for faster and better decision-making, more productivity, less waiting time, fewer wasted hours and there are no people who become bottlenecks for decisions.

Which all sounds very great. But let’s not forget that just as roundabouts require more attention, functioning in a self-managing, flat organization also requires quite a lot of effort, learning, and unlearning. While you might be able to stop for three minutes at a traffic light and check your phone, in a roundabout you need to constantly pay attention to others and what’s happening around you. Self-managing organizations are made up of self-managing people. And self-management is not an easy task. But it’s definitely liberating and worth the effort.

Building a flat organization is not just about removing middle management and letting work flow without any structure. It means carefully designing the rules and principles of collaboration in order to allow the most natural flow of work.

If you are curious about building teams based on self-management, let’s get in touch!


The reason why you need long vacations - very long ones

On the 4th of February I took a plane and landed on the other side of the planet, in South America. It was the second time that I spent all of February on holiday, recharging my energy and leaving everything behind for a month. I like to call it a creative retreat for myself. Last year I still brought my laptop with me to Thailand, but this year I decided that I’ll take four weeks only for myself and for my mental break. I left everything behind this time, even though I have a company, I love my job, and I know how much the success of my projects depends on me. To many other business owners it seems to be a completely crazy idea to make my life as an entrepreneur so hard by skipping a whole month. I was also afraid of how much I’ll lose by doing this kind of experiment.

 

I wasn’t running away, I wasn’t burned out, I didn’t have an especially stressful period behind me – there was nothing negative as a motivation for my decision. I knew without reaching a point of full exhaustion that I needed this break, I needed this time for exploration. One of my main motivations to start my own business was to have more freedom, including freedom of choice and deciding on my own schedule. This also includes having time for traveling, which is my main source of inspiration. The idea of only having 20 days off a year was freaking me out and it scared me away from being an employee (among many other factors, of course). 

 

I don’t want to be trapped by my own business and forget one of the important reasons why I decided to go my own way. Which is, to be honest, very difficult in a world where being busy and having an insanely full calendar are the metrics for success. The more you do, the more valuable you are as a person. It’s suspicious if you ask a friend to have a coffee together tomorrow morning instead of setting up an ‘appointment’ in two weeks. We’re running the who sleeps less, who loves their jobs more competition every day. But for what? I’m exaggerating of course, but this is kind of what I see around me, especially among entrepreneurs and those working on ‘love projects’. 

 

So when I tell people that for a month I was mostly offline, wild camping in Chile, snorkelling in Colombia, and sleeping in a hammock for four days in a row in a house in the middle of the Caribbean sea, some respond: “Yes, it’s such a luxury that YOU can afford leaving for such a long time.” Because their industry is different. Because they have people in their team. Because the house is always burning in their company. Because if they leave for such a long time they don’t get involved in the coolest projects because they don’t show motivation. Or because they ‘love’ their jobs so much that they can’t even imagine living without it for a month and doing ‘nothing’. (!!!)

 

Don’t get me wrong, there are indeed times and circumstances when you can’t leave: you have a sick relative to take care of, a super important project that influences the future of your business, you have other priorities like growing in a short amount of time or have other things going on in your private life. I’m talking to those who want to go, who dream about a destination they’ve wanted to visit for a long time and haven’t made it happen because their ‘love’ for the job doesn’t let them go for a longer period of time. 

 

After these two long creative breaks I’m convinced that if you don’t give yourself the time and space to fully recharge your batteries it’ll cause your business much more harm than the fact that you’re away for a month. And no, when you check emails on the beach all the time, that’s not recharging. You need to let go of work and not think about it at all. And it’s super freaking hard. It took me nine (yes, nine!! super shocking) days to fully let go of what’s happening at home and in my business. After a week I had a call with a colleague and was still very frustrated that I didn’t have much influence on the flow of the things. And then I started a wild camping trip with a local friend in Chile where I had no internet connection and that’s when I finally managed to turn off mentally as well. After that I only checked emails every 5-6 days and I didn’t respond to any of them, I only forwarded the most important ones to someone in charge. I trusted my team and their ability to take care of everything that was going on in the business. And I’m still super grateful for their efforts in that month. 

 

I think many more people would need such holidays. In fact, I think that the more you love your job, the longer you need to leave it behind. So here come my six main reasons to convince you to plan your next long holiday:

 

1. Your brain needs time to let go of the everyday hustle

The nine day cool-off period that I had might be a bit extreme, but you need at least 3-4 days to start arriving mentally to your holidays: to see that your colleagues are taking care of your tasks, to still finish some projects, to send some last emails you might have forgotten in the office. You need to get used to a slower pace when you don’t always do something. Just imagine, if you take a long weekend, you are already packing for home when you finally start arriving, and if you have a week, you only have 3-4 days to enjoy that relaxed state of mind. I’m sure that after this you don’t want to be in the office next Monday, sitting at your computer still dreaming about the beach whether you could still be sunbathing if you decided to take more days off in a row. 

 

2. You need to turn off – literally

When I first heard the news about the elimination of roaming fees in the EU it seemed to be great news. Then I realized that this puts one of the biggest values of traveling at risk: being offline and unavailable most of the time. The time when we only check our phones after a full day of sightseeing is over.This is why it was so great to be in countries where I couldn’t use my phone most of the time. I intentionally decided not to buy a SIM card. For almost 10 nights I was sleeping at places where I didn’t even have Wi-fi: in the middle of the sea, up in the mountains, or close to a lake in a tent. It’s so deliberating that there is no one ‘waiting for me’ in the virtual world and there is only me, my friends, and the present moments. Take distance from the online world. Put your phone in the backpack and don’t take it out for days. I know it might seem hard, but your mind will shift into a completely different mindset if you allow it to focus only on the present moment. (But please let your family know that you won’t answer for some days because you are in a remote place so they don’t freak out if you don’t give life signs for days…) 

3. Nature recharges you like nothing else

Lately I’ve read an article [K1]  about the importance of nature for our mental health. Fresh air, all the shades of green and blue, the sound of the sea, and the admiration of sunsets all make me calm and relaxed. There was a day when we were hiking uphill all day (with a lovely 12 kg backpack) and I could only hear the birds chirping and the twigs breaking under my feet, and I had to pay attention to every single step so that I didn’t sprinkle my ankle. Believe me, it is impossible to be anywhere else mentally when you have to pay so much attention to what’s around you. Because of the physical tiredness I mostly went to bed around 9 PM and I woke up with the sun, which also gave me a very energizing routine. Living in nature for 4-5 days felt like completely restarting my brain that had six programs running at the same time and 65 pages open in a browser tab. A new beginning 🙂 

 

4. Physical and mental distance from your everyday life gives you new perspectives

This month allowed me to take a helicopter view of my life, my project, my plans. It was super interesting to observe during the first week how much I missed my established routine: the workshops, my hobbies, fencing trainings, the people I met regularly every week. Then the trip took a turn when I managed to leave everything from the daily hustle behind. It allowed me to observe things from a distance, to reflect, to think, to evaluate the last year. I had the time to ask the questions to myself that I don’t usually ask when I’m just caught up in the daily to do’s. I realized what’s important to me at this point and what’s not. What are the things that I do out of habit and what are the things that need more focus because they are closer to my personal mission. I had to face how much I changed and that this internal change needs external changes as well. I saw my goals much  more clearly and had many exciting ideas. 

5. The great feeling of solving real problems

Where am I going to sleep tomorrow? Where can I get my laundry done? What will I eat, what will I need for a 3 day hiking or boat trip, what should I buy against the local mosquitos, what should I do with my severely sunburnt skin, how can I get to Santa Marta from Cartagena in the safest way…? I only had very practical things to do and arrange. It was so refreshing because my job is mostly theoretical; many times there are no black or white answers for the problems clients and I face. They are hard to grasp and mostly very complex and complicated. This makes my brain constantly run in the background as I try to brainstorm about possible solutions. For a month I only had very simple and clear challenges to solve. Apart from the mosquito issue because they were eating me alive no matter what I did. 

6. You never know who will inspire you on your journey

As a trainer it’s part of my daily life to learn: I read, I attend courses, I do massive research, I have mentors, I do interviews, I listen to podcasts. During traveling a whole new dimension of learning opens up for me: I meet many interesting people from different background and stories to tell. To me it’s kind of like entering the ‘school of life’. I learn so much from these people: from a bartender in a hostel who is super committed to his job and who also learned three languages on his own, or a man who tells me stories of restarting by telling me how his life took a 180-degree-turn three times already, or a 22 year old girl who runs a successful local business instead of going to university. A good conversation is like a shot of inspiration and I love how much my worldview is challenged on an everyday basis. 

 

‘I love that after this trip you are so energized that you can also transfer this energy to me. You should go more often and recharge us as well’ – this was the reaction of one of my colleagues after the trip. It made me think. 

 

I didn’t take this holiday to recharge from traveling so that I can work more afterwards. I took it for myself, because it’s a part of me, because I’m so curious that I have to go from time to time. But as you can see now, being recharged and more focused definitely had a positive impact on my worklife as well. Going away for a month didn’t damage my work, it only enriched it. 

 

It might not be a full month in Latin-America for you. It might be taking 3 weeks to renovate your house. Or to visit a remote family member in Australia for the first time. Or taking weeks to spend some time with your newborn niece. Or taking three weeks every winter in the mountains because snowboarding recharges you like nothing else. The important thing is that you focus on what’s important to you and that you consciously make time for it. Enough time. Not only stolen evenings and half weekends when your head is full of the challenges of the next week. 

 

The default setting is that we spend most of our year working. If you had the choice to customize this setup, what would you change? Especially if you have the freedom because you are a founder, entrepreneur or work for a freethinking company that might even allow you to take a month of holidays. How can you adjust your worklife to meet your real priorities?

 

If you want to search for the answers together, get a listening ear from me and meet me for a kick-off coaching session. You can also follow me on Instagram to get a daily reminder about your goals. Thanks for reading and if you are still hesitating: Just book that flight 😉 

 

 [K1] https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2019/03/psychoterratica-is-the-trauma-caused-by-distance-from-nature?fbclid=IwAR1Rnxz_Yo2VOQyNysjGvV6qm3lRrVxAf5psHhgmiXSwK_wl45SKcMaorgs


The benefits of a beginner’s mindset

Let’s take an area, a topic in which you’ve worked for years already. You consider yourself an expert. You’ve seen many cases, you draw conclusions very quickly, you see the patterns and can give very precise advice without thinking. You’re an expert, but I still ask you to take a fresh look at the things you think you know: with the mindset of a complete beginner who doesn’t know much about the topic.  

I believe every trainer colleague would agree that one of the biggest challenges of our profession is teaching people who don’t want to learn. In big companies in particular, many people sit in trainings because someone assigned them to be there. Not because they’re curious and full of questions, or because they’ve realized that they need improvement in some areas. It takes a lot of effort from our side to engage these people, taking away valuable time from the not-so-long training time. The time spent showing these participants that there is something in the topic for them as well could be spent with more practice, another Q&A block, or more detailed feedback. 

 

Have you ever been this participant archetype? Sitting in the room thinking: “really, why am I sitting here?” Or “perfect, two days thrown out the window again for useless workshops…” Or “Presentation techniques training when I’ve been delivering presentation for years? What new things could anyone tell me?”

 

Of course I’m exaggerating. But you know what I’m talking about.

 

If yes, or even a tiny bit, I challenge you to take the beginner’s mindset. I’m not asking you in order to make my job easier. No. I’m asking you because this way, every learning experience might become a more useful, more interesting, and more enjoyable experience for you. I’ll show you what I mean by giving you some more insight into the principles of the beginner’s mindset.

 

How does a beginner approach a new topic? 

 

The beginner’s mindset, the “Shoshin” comes from Zen Buddhism. It’s an attitude of turning to something with openness, curiosity, and free from preconceptions even if we already have some knowledge or experience – looking at it as a beginner would approach the challenge.

 

In the moment of saying “I know this” you close your brain to letting anything inside. Your glass is full and you don’t want to pour anything in it anymore. It’s kind of like turning off all the lights in a big office building: this is how open you will be to letting anything new in, even if it’s new. Because if it’s new or different from what you know, you might need to admit that you don’t know – which is a hard job to do. 

The beginner’s mind is instead like a half full glass: there is already something in it, but there is still plenty of place to fill it up with learning, experience, and personal development. There is place for experiences that you’d otherwise miss if you reject the new information because you say that you already know how to do things. In this case you turn on all the lights in your office building: you become open to receive any kind of information that might be interesting and you’re ready to question if you’ve done it right before. 

 

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s there are few.” – Shunryu Suzuki

 

Why is it so hard to not know something?

 

One day I was looking after my niece when a repairman came to our house. My niece was so excited about the process that she asked me every single minute (and here I’m not exaggerating): “What is he doing?” And the question came back again and again. “What is he doing? And now what is he doing?” Even the repairman had to stop from time to time because he was also laughing so much. 

 

One of the most admirable thing in kids is how much they ask. Who? What? Why? When? With whom? Sometimes they ask questions that are hard to answer. Curiosity is part of their experience every day. This is how they explore the world and learn. 

 

By the time we grow up, we lose a lot from this natural curiosity. No wonder: not knowing during our school years means punishment. Bad grades, humiliating oral exams, failing tests, being ashamed in front of others. If someone expresses during a class that he doesn’t fully get everything and asks questions, he’s quickly labelled as the less intelligent one. Even if everyone else had the same feeling of not understanding in the classroom. No wonder we are so terrified of not having the right answers, of not knowing.

 

This also makes practicing the beginner’s mindset very challenging. Unlearning the mindset, the patterns of hiding insecurities, needs conscious effort and practice. You consciously need to make space in your glass in order to make space for exploration. The good news is that this allows you to leave space for learning, development, growth. You train your potential and expand its limits. This way you don’t only train your brain but become more accepting towards yourself. Not knowing not only becomes okay, but becomes the desired state. 

 

“The more you know, the more you know you don’t know.” – Aristotle

 

Three practices to get into the beginner’s mindset

 

Active listening

 

When was the last time when you were quiet, listening, focused only on what the other person was saying? A good exercise for the beginner’s mindset is immersing in conversations and leaving all our preconceptions behind, being fully present and alert to what the other says and how he says it. It is actually very hard because our brain immediately starts to comment on what we hear: I agree, I don’t agree, that happened to me as well, I have a story from a friend who had a similar experience… Or even worse we start to think about items from our to do list or whether we locked the front door or not. If we already have some knowledge on the topic we will only hear what justifies our opinion and fits our map of the world. Because it’s more comfortable. Be conscious in hearing messages that you don’t agree with. Don’t try to defend your views, just let it sink in. Instead of waiting for your turn to talk, leave space for the other to express freely and allow yourself to learn something new.

 

“When you talk, you are only repeating what you already know. But if you listen, you may learn something new.” – the Dalai Lama

Ask, ask, ask

 

It’s possible to have a conversation in which you only ask questions. Don’t believe me? Ask a coach! As a coach, for long stretches of the conversations you might be just be asking questions. It’s good practice for you as well. In your next conversation don’t add anything, don’t comment, reply,or share a similar story, just ask questions. Start a journey of exploration and try to understand what’s really in the other’s mind, how do they think. Have genuine curiosity, try to understand and model how they think the world functions, what their thinking patterns are.

 

Practice during trainings and presentations

 

The next time you enter a training room, remind yourself: ‘When I think that I know, I close my capacity to pay full attention and let surprising new information in.’

 

The best challenge would be signing up for a training that sounds like something below your level. If you consider yourself an expert in a topic or know a lot about it, go to a training for beginners and let yourself be surprised. Sit with an open mind and curiosity and search for what’s new, not for what you already know. Pay attention, ask questions, challenge your previous knowledge. Don’t look for confirmation of your already existing knowledge, but for challenging facts and interesting insights. After the experience reflect on the new insights you gained.

 

The last challenge also allows you to build on your strengths even more, which also allows you to practice a strength-based approach. It’s worth investing in learning about a field that you’re already good in.