Flat Army

The old command-and-control management style still prevails, but it is as relevant to contemporary business as horse-drawn carriages are to transportation. Engage and empower will be the preferred management method in the future, as learning professional Dan Pontefract explains. His title uses “flat” to mean equal and “army” to suggest ships moving in unison like an armada – thus envisioning people of equal status working collaboratively. While Pontefract can be obtuse (“Think of being continuous as defining your level of leadership cadence”) or even nonsensical (“I want Flat Army to become a disease within the organization”), most of his 90,000 words make solid sense, and he writes with a refreshing, straight-from-the-shoulder style.
• Command and control has been the corporate default management approach.
• Industrial efficiency expert Frederick Taylor and business management theorist Henri Fayol championed this hierarchical, rigid system.
• Command and control is obsolete and fosters employee disengagement.
• The “Flat Army” approach draws on openness, sharing, harmony and trust.
• Workers in a Flat Army experience “horizontal connectedness” and “psychological ownership” of their work.
• Flat Army leaders are “involving, empathizing, developing, communicating, analyzing, deciding, delivering, cooperating” and “clowning.”
• They must also “coach, measure, explore and adapt.”
• “Collaborative leadership” is “continuous, authentic, reciprocal and educational.”
• The “collaborative leader action model” has six aspects: “Connect, consider, communicate, create, confirm quality results and congratulate” the team.
• Transforming your company into a Flat Army firm takes time.
Command and Control
The command-and-control management style that dominated business operations for hundreds of years is now completely outdated. Yet, even though smart, forward-looking corporations should immediately retire this rigid, hierarchical system, it remains the default management approach.
“Many leaders have somehow become so comfortable with the status quo that they do not question why this pyramidal structure and operating practice continue to exist today.”
Command and control has significant historical roots. In 1600, Britain’s Queen Elizabeth I approved the formation of the East India Trading Company (EIC) as the exclusive commercial entity for all British trade east of Africa’s Cape of Good Hope. The EIC patterned itself after the English monarchy, which exercised absolute power according to divine right. This was the authority formula for all monarchies dating back to the Roman Empire, which first introduced the command-and-control system. EIC exercised tight, monopolistic control of all British commerce in India and throughout Asia, with 250,000 workers, a vast fleet and a rigid command-and-control management structure. At its most powerful, the EIC thus controlled more than 20% of the global population.
Frederick Taylor and Henri Fayol
Industrial efficiency expert Frederick Taylor and business management theorist Henri Fayol provided the 20th century intellectual foundations for command and control. In 1911, Taylor wrote The Scientific Principles of Management, which casts employees as puppets in the scientific equations of industrial production time-efficiency studies. Fayol recommended that all corporations adopt rigid hierarchical structures. He wrote: “To manage is to forecast, to plan, to organize, to command, to coordinate and control.”
“Any individual in an organization can have an impact on any facet of the organization, regardless of title or rank.”
Such inflexible hierarchies and dictatorships may have worked in the past, but they are no longer appropriate, efficient or effective. Today’s employees insist upon being empowered and engaged. They want to collaborate with everyone – their co-workers, their supervisors and their companies’ top executives. They want open leadership and reject micromanagers who dictate what they must do on a daily basis. Today’s employees want no part of “hierarchical hell.”
Gallup reports that only 11% of today’s employees feel engaged at work. The other 89% operates in sort of a “corporate coma.” Other research indicates that only a microscopically small 0.3% of employees feel satisfied in their work. Companies cannot attain their best results if most of their workers are withdrawn from or miserable with their work. Research says employee engagement strongly affects your company’s bottom line. The income of companies with engaged employees is up 19%, while firms with disengaged employees suffer a 32% income drop. Turnover falls off by 87% when employees are engaged, and performance increases by 20%.
Enlisting in the “Flat Army”
Today’s workforce needs Flat Army management. A “flat” structure suggests equality. The term “army” derives from the Latin word armata, which concerns a fleet – an armada – of ships moving together. This suggests a system in which everyone in an organization advances smoothly in unison toward a shared goal. The Flat Army approach empowers employees and engages them in a system of “horizontal connectedness.” It links them together, builds their enthusiasm and provides a sense of “psychological ownership” of their jobs.
“Openness, both as a quality of the leader and an expectation of the team, fosters a harmonious relationship among all parties.”
In a Flat Army corporate culture, reciprocity matters. Everyone works together in harmony. Financial goals are paramount, but staff well-being is a close second. The Flat Army strategy of “trust, involvement and empathy” relies on five basic principles: “connection” with engaged leaders, “collaboration” among staff and managers, “participation” in all kinds of networks, “learning” on a continuous basis, and “technology” that enables connectivity and cooperation.
“Pervasive learning and collaboration technologies” are primary elements of the Flat Army philosophy. Learning is not restricted to the classroom. People learn as they work, through social networks, from each other and via other channels.
“Connected Leader Attributes”
Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York is the ideal connected leader. He shares information with his subordinates and collaborates with them when appropriate. To remain fully accessible, Bloomberg does not work in a private office. He sits in the middle of a large room – the “bullpen” – surrounded by his subordinates, none of whom work behind closed doors or in cubicles.
“Millennials actually prefer to learn through mentoring than any other formal, informal or social learning type.”
Bloomberg, the quintessential Flat Army leader, routinely displays the 15 attributes that connected leaders must live by:
1. “Trusting” – Pay attention to what others think and say. Allow employees to make mistakes without retribution so they can learn. Be consistent.
2. “Involving” – Make sure everyone on your team contributes. Eliminate barriers that prevent subordinates from participating in team activities.
3. “Empathizing” – Consider what your workplace experience is like for the people on your team. When people have difficulties, don’t be critical. Help them grow.
4. “Developing” – Provide pathways that enable your employees to develop themselves professionally. Assist them in setting up individual “development action plans.”
5. “Communicating” – Make sure your staffers get the information they need to do their jobs well. Listen to everyone, no matter what his or her position may be.
6. “Analyzing” – Connect with your subordinates to ensure that your analysis of any situation is accurate. Take the time you need to figure things out properly.
7. “Deciding” – Consider the effects of your decisions. Ask others for their opinions. Examine all your options. Hold decision makers accountable.
8. “Delivering” – Never rush. Never dodge problems. Confront them head-on. When you set objectives or make plans to achieve them, be firm.
9. “Cooperating” – Foster a spirit of cooperation among your team members. Don’t isolate yourself from others. Involve your subordinates in all activities.
10. “Clowning” – People work better when they’re relaxed. Create a warm atmosphere by lightening up and smiling. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Don’t be afraid to tell a joke.
11. “Coaching” – Use every opportunity to counsel your subordinates. Provide them with useful feedback, but never offer advice until you have all the facts.
12. “Measuring” – Pay attention to “quantitative business metrics,” like fiscal numbers, and “qualitative humanistic metrics,” like employee work-satisfaction levels.
13. “Exploring” – Play devil’s advocate to explore all options. Get out of your office and learn what is taking place around you.
14. “Adapting” – Stay flexible. Be ready to change, no matter what the situation.
15. “Bettering” – Don’t settle for the status quo. Strive to increase the effectiveness of your organization and to improve the workplace for your subordinates.
The “Participating Leader Framework”
To make your organization more inclusive and “direct-network driven,” become a participatory leader by following the “CARE principle.”
“Don’t let fancy technology become a dividing influence in your newly engaged corporate culture.”
It states that collaborative leadership should be:
• “Continuous” – Promote participation at all times.
• “Authentic” – Being real encourages the same behavior from your subordinates.
• “Reciprocal” – Participatory leadership depends on give-and-take.
• “Educating” – Teach your subordinates and urge them to learn.
The more direct contacts, networks and relationships you have, the more effective you can be as a leader. Take the time to expand your “direct professional network.” Encourage your subordinates to do the same. Constantly seek new knowledge and learn from your subordinates. Utilize your personal or professional networks to share information.
“The Collaborative Leader Action Model”
Collaboration is “the unfettered allowance and encouragement of employees to both contribute and consume knowledge, insight or ideas with any direct relationship via professional or personal networks to achieve an outcome.”
The collaborative leader action model (CLAM) generates superior collaboration across any firm. Its six facets are:
1. “Connect (with others)” – Don’t plan things alone; reach out to your employees and benefit from their thinking.
2. “Consider (all options)” – Discuss your alternatives with your team.
3. “Communicate (the decision and action plan)” – Plan your actions and share your plans with all your stakeholders.
4. “Create (the result)” – Business requires successful execution.
5. “Confirm (the result met the target)” – Quantify your outcome.
6. “Congratulate (through feedback and recognition)” – Employees want to know that you value them, so honor their good work.
Pervasive Learning and Collaboration Technologies
Learning can occur anywhere at any time. Such pervasive learning can be “formal” and take place at conferences or in classrooms. It can be “informal” and occur as webinars, mentoring, podcasts and coaching. Or, learning can be “social” and spring from micro-blogging, blogs, wikis, tagging, videos, online discussions, and so on. Today’s “collaboration technologies” encompass the advanced, innovative tools you and your employees can use to connect, cooperate, enjoy unfettered conversation and create online content.
“Micro-managing … is merely another name for distrust.”
Establish a fruitful, shared context for that content by using online tools such as:
• “Search” – Increase your contacts.
• “Profiles” – Post professional portraits on Facebook and LinkedIn.
• “Badging” – Identify talents and specialties.
• “Ratings” – Let others rank your content.
• “Tagging” – Use the most familiar accepted terms to identify content.
“The Flat Army in Action”
Successful companies that exemplify the Flat Army spirit include:
• Hitachi – This Japanese firm’s culture exemplifies trust, collaboration and openness. Anyone can speak with anyone, from mail clerks to the CEO. Its spirit epitomizes the Flat Army philosophy: “Wa: harmony, trust and respect; Makoto: sincerity, fairness, honesty and integrity; and Kaitakusha-Seishin: pioneering spirit and challenge.”
• Zappos – Visionary CEO Tony Hsieh has one prevailing corporate mantra: Success depends on taking good care of your employees. This philosophy enabled Zappos to increase its revenues from around $1.6 million in 2000 to nearly $2 billion in 2012.
• HCL Technologies – This Indian global information-technology-services company believes strongly in employee engagement. To promote that engagement, it hosts an online forum in which any employee can participate. The CEO, Vineet Nayar, and his executive team respond to any questions posted. Nayar says that the purpose of this forum is to promote “open conversation” among all employees and executives.
To roll out the Flat Army management style within your organization, first introduce the collaborative leader action model. Later, focus on pervasive learning and collaboration technologies. After that, institute the participative leader framework. But be patient; converting an organization to a full-fledged Flat Army can take two or three years.
About the Author
As head of learning and coaching, Dan Pontefract is responsible for leadership development and collaboration strategy for 40,000 TELUS team members.

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