Companies like GitHub and Valve are not necessarily “structureless” in the same way the back-to-the-landers were. They do, for example, have a top layer of management responsible for the big decisions. But modern organizations can experience many of the same problems the communes did. For example, former Valve employee Jeri Ellswort told the Grey Area podcast that Valve was a lot like high school. “There are popular kids that have acquired power in the company,” she said. “Then there’s the trouble makers, and everyone in between.”
Last weekend, GitHub suspended one of its founders and an engineer amid allegations of gender-based harassment that developer Julie Ann Horvath, a former employee, made via Twitter. “I’ve been harassed by ‘leadership’ at GitHub for two years,” she tweeted Friday. “And I am the first developer to quit.” Horvath told TechCrunch that she had been harassed by the unnamed founder’s wife, and that the suspended engineer had propositioned her, then systematically rejected her code contributions in retaliation.
GitHub wants to change the way businesses operate, making them more egalitarian and more productive. But these changes may also bring new problems.
Bureaucracy has its drawbacks. But so does flatness. Borderless collaboration and a non-authoritarian workplace are great goals to strive for, but they shouldn’t–and needn’t–come at the expense of other, more important things.
Counter-cultural movements of the 1960s may seem vastly different than Silicon Valley, but the same anti-hierarchical impulse exists within tech culture, from flat organizations to the decentralized digital currency bitcoin. In fact, Turner argues that both the tech industry and the back-to-the-land communal movement of the late 1960s and the have shared roots in the community that emerged around Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog.
It’s not entirely clear how much GitHub’s flat organizational structure contributed to the problems that lead to Horvath’s exit. After all, you can find bad management and a toxic environment in any type of organization. And so far we’ve only heard one side of the story. But it certainly shows that company structures are more complicated than many people realize.
Critics say that flat organizations can conceal power structures and shield individuals from accountability.
The problem with supposedly non-hierarchical groups, she wrote, is that power structures are invisible–and therefore unaccountable. That inevitably leads to disfunction and abuse. Charismatic leaders could use their position to advance their own agenda, award desirable tasks and projects to an “in group,” and shift blame for mistakes.
The San Francisco startup built its operation with a “flat” organizational structure with few, if any, middle managers or formal job titles. Rather than waiting for a rigid hierarchy of managers to give orders, employees simply rally around projects that need to be done.
The organizations Freeman was a part of weren’t alone in facing this problem. Back-to-the-land communes saw similar issues, according to Fred Turner, author of From Counter Culture to Cyberculture. Although the communes eschewed formal division of labor, the women ended up handling cooking, cleaning, and raising children. Communes governed by more explicit structures ended up being more progressive, with such responsibilities being distributed equally.
An unprofessional work atmosphere can quickly become disguised and defended as a ‘casual culture.’
A growing number of companies have adopted this type of structure, including game developer Valve and W.L. Gore, the company behind Gore-Tex. But the idea had particular resonance coming from GitHub, as it mirrors GitHub’s web service that provides a means for large groups to freely collaborate on software projects. For many developers who use the service daily, the flat structure seemed like an idea that could reinvent businesses by making them as democratic — and as powerful — as a good open source project. But the reality may be a little different.
One way flat organizations ensure the work gets done is by hiring people who “fit the culture.” Ostensibly this means hiring self-motivated individuals. In reality, thought, it often means hiring people similar to the founders–usually young white men. This lack of diversity creates a few problems. An unprofessional work atmosphere quickly can become disguised and defended as a “casual culture.” It can make any women and minority employees feel like outsiders. And in a flat organization, being excluded from the most powerful cliques can be even more limiting than it would be an environment where projects are coordinated from above.
Critics say flat organizations can conceal power structures and shield individuals from accountability. This idea dates to the 1972 essay The Tyranny of Structurelessness by Jo Freeman, who describes her experiences in “leaderless” feminist organizations in the 1960s. “There is no such thing as a structureless group,” Freeman wrote. “Any group of people of whatever nature that comes together for any length of time for any purpose will inevitably structure itself in some fashion.”
The cult of the “right fit” can also make the hiring process slower, and make it harder to fill positions at all. “We were having a difficult time recruiting folks,” Ellsworth said on the podcast. “We would interview very talented people but they would be rejected by the old timers at Valve as not fitting the culture.”
Although we don’t yet know all the details, the situation raises questions about the effectiveness of GitHub’s flat organization. And the view from here suggests some of the points Horvath raised probably could have been better addressed in a more traditional organization with clear chains of command and a process for filing grievances.
Advocates claim that a lack of hierarchy and bureaucracy lets employees collaborate more freely and be more innovative. And certainly, companies like GitHub and Valve have been tremendously successful in shipping products that customers love. But a company must do more than create great products. It’s also responsible for allocating resources, resolving internal disputes, hiring people, and fairly compensating employees. GitHub, it seems, broke down in this respect.
What’s more, a study by Kellogg School of Management found diverse teams are better problem-solvers and decision-makers. If the point of a flat organization is to encourage spontaneous collaboration between people who wouldn’t otherwise work together, hiring practices that encourage homogeneity are counterproductive.
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