A Small Rant About Flat Organizations


I met someone at the Software Development conference this week who told me he had too many people to meet with them all–even on a biweekly basis. I asked him how many people he managed. “30.” That’s not a typo; that’s the number between 29 and 31. I asked why he had so many people reporting directly to him. “My manager believes in flat organizations.” And how many people report to his manager? “4.” Sure, the manager can believe in flat organization; he’s got a reasonable number of direct reports.

I don’t have a recipe for the number of people you can manage. New, unseasoned managers can manage 3 or 4 people. More seasoned managers can easily manage 6 or 7 people. If you’re also the project manager–assigning work, making sure people make progress on the work, coordinating the work of multiple people, it’s possible to manage somewhere around 9-12 people. That’s hard, but possible. Of course, all you can do is manage; there’s no room for any kind of technical contribution once you’re past three people.

If you’re the functional manager and you assign people to projects with talented project managers, maybe you can manage 15-16 people. I’ve managed up to 15 people that way.

It’s not possible for one person to directly manage 30 people and still perform the management role for each person. I’m sure that there are informal technical leads in that group. But since those roles are informal, the communication issues must be extraordinary. I bet there are lots of people who aren’t getting the work done when they need to get it done, because the communication through one group of 30 people is too complex.

If you have lots of people, formally create sub-project managers or technical leads. Define their roles, including who will provide frequent feedback and coaching. And make sure your manager understands the consequences of choosing a flat organization: that you will be the bottleneck, that work will take longer, and that the most important management work will not get done–personal career development, feedback, and coaching. If you don’t create the leads or sub-project managers, there’s a good bet a bunch of project work won’t be done either, just because the coordination of effort among 30 people is a non-trivial effort.

Managers perform a valuable role in the organization, creating an environment in which people can deliver results. Organizations with a manager for every three people probably has too many managers. But an organization that averages over 12 people per manager probably has too few managers. When considering how many managers you need, consider how much feedback, coaching, hiring, and coordinating the manager needs to accomplish. Those considerations will help you decide how flat the organization needs to be.

5 Replies to “A Small Rant About Flat Organizations”

  1. Johanna,
    Having been placed in a role not dissimilar to the attendee at your conference, I can vouch for your assessment. 30 direct reports is too stinkin’ many. In my case, it was 5 different teams of between 3 and 9 people, working on different projects and software systems.
    There were no coach-able leaders in the teams, but I was able to make a case with my managers to hire in contract project leads to help manage the work, day to day. I also had a boss 3 levels up who brought in a consulting firm to help me develop self managed teams (using an agile work management process).
    At the time I posted a comment here and you gave me the advice to meet with each person individually. I couldn’t afford that with so many people, so I had biweekly meetings with each team, and I was able to identify the disengaged and morale challenged members of each team to focus on. Spending time with the needier members of the staff proved to be very effective.

  2. Hi Johanna,
    when I was in the Canadian Armed Forces, they taught me that 9 people were the maximum direct span of control one could expect to have. I always structured my projects and other work to respect this rule of thumb (splitting groups and designating co-leaders to manage them, when need be)with good success.
    And this is the number I use when teaching project managers about developing and managing their teams. I also insist on individual meetings when starting up a new project to understand individual interests and align, if possible, those with the project «official» objectives. So, doing that with more than 8-10 people and maintaining this kind of contact afterwards is nearly impossible. You however have to train your co-leaders to do the same to obtain alignment among all project team members (often an extended team including customer(s), suppliers and other stakeholders)
    Best regards

  3. One comment to think about. Quote from Kaoru Ishikawa in his “What is Quality Control book”. (Ishikawa is the father of Japanese quality control) (p66):
    “Man is by nature good. If educated he can become a reliable person to whom authority can be delegated. That is why I stress education. Through education and training subordinates become reliable, and the span of control (the number of people one person can supervise directly) becomes larger and larger. My ideal is to have one supervisor for every one hundred workers, just like an orchestra where the conductor can bring out the best in music!”

  4. Johanna,
    There is no set number of people one person can manage. It depends on three variables: Self, Other and Context.
    Flat organizations are superior in that they enhance communication (both up and down) and individual empowerment. This is not easy to accomplish. A manager, at whatever level of experience, should seek to expand his or her span of control with effective training, communication and reporting mechanisms.

  5. Whether a person can manage 30 people will depend on a couple of factors. While there are some variations to the number of direct reports a manager can handle, the number is relatively small. Fifteen is probably on the high end.
    However, if there is a matrix organizaton that is in place where day-to-day task management and direction is occuring with a different manager or project lead, then it is possible to scale to much higher numbers.
    Though this is actually blurring what may be the fundamental definition of “management” a bit. In the matrix case, the “direct manager” will transfer most of the “management” function to the functional lead, while still maintaining the direct reporting relationship (e.g., performance review, salary decisions, and hiring-firing decision).
    That said, I don’t want to have an organization where I had any more than ten directs, preferably more like 5-8.

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