How to Flatten a Hierarchy

August 23, 2013

Flatten a hierarchyYou need a hierarchy to get things done efficiently. But hierarchies don’t always produce optimal solutions to complex and challenging problems. To be both efficient and effective, sometimes you need to flatten a hierarchy for a short period of time. You need to speak freely across and around prescribed channels, not through them.

Nate Garvis, owner of Naked Civics (also the title of his book), flattened hierarchies in his former role as VP of Government Affairs at Target. He calls this process Strategic Inefficiency. He employed Strategic Inefficiency in one-on-one conversations with coworkers over coffee–when the purpose was to get to know each other, not discuss work product. He also did this more formally each Monday during the global department meeting. In both coffee conversations and large department meetings, Garvis not only learned more with flattened hierarchies, he learned it more quickly.

Whether you call it Strategic Inefficiency or Flattening a Hierarchy, it works! Let me break this down for you in steps so you can put it to use in your organization.

Step 1: De-label

When you begin your meeting, according to Garvis, ask everyone to de-label from their roles. I remember this practice from psychodrama. You actually state, “I am not the VP of manufacturing (or whatever your title is at the time).” With a crew the size Garvis led, this would be too cumbersome so he would simply remind all participants to de-label from their titles and roles. To him, this meant everyone at the meeting no longer had to observe hierarchical rules, and that everyone’s opinions carried equal weight. He said it takes a while for a team to get accustomed to interacting without their titles mattering.

Step 2: Give a piece of yourself

Before diving headlong into the meeting, Garvis would ask people to share something personal about themselves so that the team would see beyond the hierarchy. They would begin to see each other as people.

Step 3: Critical Feedback

Garvis is extremely right-brained and probably generated an infinite number of great ideas for his team, but he knows that great ideas aren’t enough. They must be challenged and fully accepted. In a hierarchical structure like Target, it is very difficult to challenge you boss’s ideas. Flattening a hierarchy allows critical feedback to happen. When everyone has de-labeled, they can say what they really think. Ideas get fire-tested, and acceptance is earned.

At first Strategic Inefficiency did not go well, so Garvis amped up the message with incentives to teammates who did the best job of challenging his ideas. The one with the best critique got a prize. As soon as they could see he was serious about this feedback, they saw it was safe to provide the same feedback to one another. This dramatically changed the culture of his department.

Step 4: Re-label

Once critical feedback has been given and rewarded, it’s time to re-label. With hierarchical titles and roles reestablished, work can be done efficiently through familiar and prescribed channels.

Nate credits Strategic Inefficiency for many of innovative breakthroughs at Target. I have recommended this approach to clients, and they, too, find it very effective.

Try flattening a hierarchy within your organization. If you have tried or have techniques to share, please post them here.


Reach your next peak

We help leaders expand the change they want to see in their teams, organizations, and the wider world.