Just a little backstory for those of you who don’t know Roald Dahl’s classic children’s book, The BFG (which is short for big friendly giant) in which the world’s only good giant pairs up with a young girl, Sophie, to convince the Queen of England to capture the child-eating giants in Giant Country. The BFG has a tough time convincing Sophie and the rest of the world that he is different from the other giants and that he can actually help make the world a safer place. The BFG gives the Queen a nightmare to help her believe in the giants. Then, the army captures all of the evil giants and places them in a giant pit they cannot escape from, feeding them snozzcumbers as a punishment for eating humans.
In the world of management, a hierarchical structure is natural. We grew up watching our parents climb the management ladder and we’ve all heard and told stories of good bosses and bad bosses, that one peer who keeps getting promoted despite never doing anything and the guy who does all of the work but gets no recognition. We instinctively fall into established and predictable routines at work, settling into our roles in the typical management structure.
The opposite of this hierarchy is the flat organization with no managers, no bosses and no instructions. Sounds like a recipe for chaos, right? Ditching management is like following The Big Friendly Giant into Giant Country to catch the evil giants. How are you supposed to know The BFG is really different from the other giants? What if he eats children too? What if he eats you?
The truth is, you have to trust the BFG in order to find out. For years, we have been instituting managerial structures everywhere from the PTA to the C-suite. We like being able to follow orders and report up the chain of command. It gives us a sense of purpose and allows us a quick idea of how well we’re doing in an organization.
Unfortunately, management also allows each of us to feel distanced from the end product of our day-to-day jobs. If we don’t have the responsibility to ship the product, we can always pass blame for a failure to someone else. If it isn’t our job to think of the best new way to make our customers happy, we will gladly let someone else take care of that.
Organizations everywhere are starting to wonder – what happens if you give every single employee the power to direct the company? What happens if we trust this BFG and see if he’s as good as he says he is?
Valve, a software gaming company, has committed wholeheartedly to a flat organizational structure. The Valve employee handbook dictates how a new hire should operate in a flat organization; “ Every company will tell you that ‘the customer is boss,’ but here that statement has weight. There’s no red tape stopping you from figuring out for yourself what our customers want, and then giving it to them” (p. 6).
Through the experiments of Valve and Zappos and countless other companies without hierarchy, we are discovering a huge amount of creativity stored in every employee from the newest hire to the oldest hat. Removing organizational structure allows each of those employees to share and act upon their wildest ideas. If they can create enough buzz around an idea, they can implement it. Think of the creative power your company can harness with all of the minds you’ve hired working as if the decisions they make changes the direction of the company. Trusting the BFG and leaping into the chaos might just pay off with freedom from those big, child-eating giants to pay huge dividends.
Your employees will start asking questions like, of all the projects currently under way, what’s the most valuable thing I can be working on? What’s interesting? What’s rewarding? What leverages my individual strengths the most? (p. 9, Valve handbook).
The creativity that comes from leveraging all of the minds at your company at their highest capacity could be mind blowing. You could find answers to problems you’ve been trying to solve for years by taking it to fresh eyes, even if they are eyes that used to be “at the bottom.” A whole new product line or a smoother customer experience might come out of the most unlikely employee. With the giants cordoned off into a pit eating snozzcumbers, the citizens can flourish alongside the BFG.
Jumping all the way from a strict hierarchy to a flat organization might be too large a leap for your company right now. But loosening the lines of communication between ranks and allowing junior employees to make decisions that actually matter at your firm could change everything. Hey, unless you follow the BFG into Giant Territory, you’ll never know how good life can be without those scary giants.