Kill the Hierarchy! - Span of Control

Transitioning People Through Constant Change

This post in the series “Kill the Hierarchy” I explore how flattening the organisational structure will increase a manager’s span of control but does not mean increased workload.  Adoption of self-management will avoid that and bring additional benefits.

For an organisation to survive and thrive in a world of constant and uncertain change, the organisation has to be one in which leadership is important, but MORE important is a collaborative workplace in which transparency and creative freedom reign over hierarchical boundaries. This enables innovation, creativity, experimentation, rapid decision-making, agility and employee ownership, engagement and influence. There is widespread autonomy and everyone leads.

No one ever did anything awesome or great just because they were told to!

The ‘Kill the Hierarchy’ model shown the diagram below, illustrates the changes needed to move to a flatter structure, and it is these changes that we shall be exploring in this series of posts.


Span of control

‘Span of control’ was originally a military term that referenced the number of subordinates that directly report to a particular manager.

Flat organisations have a ‘wide’ span of control and tall organisations have a ‘narrow’ span of control. 

The key consideration should be a structure that suits the organisation (its customer and markets) and also matches the capability of its employees.

If an organisation is to flatten its structure, it would appear that a manager’s span of control will increase to a point where he/she has too many people to ‘manage’. The workload becomes too high.

However, the opposite is the case.

How it works

Genuine flat structures have a workforce that is self-managing. Employees have delegated decision-making authority, autonomy, empowerment and red tape is eliminated.

Therefore, the ‘manager’ has less to do! The planning, coordinating, controlling, staffing and directing activities of a manager in a tall structure are pushed out to all employees (rather than just a select few).

Management is not the right of a few but the responsibility of everyone

Employees in an authentic flat structure are responsible for forging relationships, planning their work, coordinating and collaborating with others, acquiring resources to undertake their work and for making decision as they are needed.

Span of control.jpg

Good morning!

Morning Star is an organisation I have already referenced in previous posts. Morning Star is a tomato processor who has adhered to a flat structure since its founding in 1970. Albeit being ‘born flat’, Morning Star has lots that an existing hierarchical organisation can learn from when considering flattening the structure.

An extract from the Morning Star Self-Management Institute explains what self-management means.

“Individual Colleagues, directed by their Personal Commercial Mission, are principally responsible for organizing their relationships.  Their Personal Commercial Mission is their "boss."  The managerial functions of planning, organizing, staffing, directing and controlling are the personal responsibility of each Colleague.
Self-Management is an alternative to the traditional, hierarchical method of organizing we see most often in modern organizations. There are a few key ideas that are central to the Self-Management philosophy, namely that:
- People are generally happier when they have control over their own life (and work)
- It doesn't make a lot of sense to give the decision-making authority to the person that furthest (literally) away from the actual work being done
- When you give good people more responsibility, they tend to flourish
- The traditional hierarchical model of organizations is not scalable—in fact, it's a recipe for a slow painful death
- There's an undeniable link between freedom and economic prosperity in nations around the world—and, further, an undeniable link between lack of freedom and corruption at the national level.  The same is true of human organizations in general."



It is important to note that self-management is a mind shift. It is more than just talking about autonomy, empowerment, delegation etc. Self-management involves all of those things but it is actual recognition that employees are the people who have the greatest insight into the management of their day-to-day functions and who are, further, in the best position to take immediate action when circumstances demand a response or a change in course.

Actions and decisions are not randomly given to a select few who we call ‘managers’.

In short

Flattening the hierarchy will reduce the number of managers and increase their scope of control. It will not however, increase their workload, if self-management is embraced to a considerable degree.

Self-management should be implemented to a point at which it at least allows decision making to be made by those in the best position to make it. It should give employees autonomy to ‘get the job done’ whilst following the organisational principles or operating within specified ‘guardrails’.

Employees truly take ownership of outcomes and are empowered to make a difference, innovate and be creative.

Coming up!

Upcoming posts in this series entitled ‘Kill the Hierarchy’ will continue to explore how we flatten the hierarchy in order to achieve rapid and decentralised decision-making, employee engagement, high levels of collaboration, widespread autonomy, trust and respect, and an environment in which everyone leads.

 More posts on their way over the coming weeks and months, exploring how we need to take a fresh and radical look at organisational change management, and the changes we need to make if we are to thrive.

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Also remember that older posts from me are available via the Resources section.


Karen FerrisComment