How to make the most of working in a horizontal company

We get used to vertical power structures from childhood: schools and universities are regulated by authority figures who set boundaries, rules, and the criteria of success. However, many recent graduates may find themselves in a company with a horizontal organizational structure. For instance, this is how we do it in a number of Sberbank subdivisions, and some young professionals find it hard to adjust to a new system of relations at work.

This article deals with ways of adapting to a horizontal hierarchy and making the most of it.

What is a horizontal hierarchy?

In the absence of a pronounced power vertical, employees in a horizontal company work in self-organized teams of broad specialization. The top management sets out strategic tasks, while the tactics are entrusted to employees.

Essentially, this is a project approach (where all project participants are on equal footing and in charge of their own task pool) applied to the entire organization. There is no “model” horizontal structure, and each horizontal company has its own specifics, depending on its business objectives, employees’ qualifications, and corporate culture.

One of the best known horizontal company examples is Zappos, an online footwear store. In 2013, they abandoned multi-level management and split the company into “circles,” in which everyone shared ideas, worked on solutions, and jointly implemented projects. The head of each circle was an elected leader, not the top management’s appointee.

How to act in a horizontal structure

Don’t wait for anything. Do not wait for the management’s directive, your colleagues’ initiative, or for someone to bring your idea to life. A horizontal structure means there are no immediate superiors who determine your schedule and appoint tasks. Take the initiative into your own hands and do not let inexperience stop you — a fresh eye and talent can be more valuable here than professional background.

Think like an entrepreneur. Horizontal company employees often act as if their own business were at stake. This is what we call entrepreneurial thinking: do not wait for a problem to resolve itself (or for someone else to resolve it), take risks, keep testing different approaches, and never sit back. Even though you may be an entrepreneur, you have insurance — there is a large company backing you.

Make mistakes. One of the principal differences between horizontal and vertical organizations is the attitude to mistakes. You need to overcome your “built-in” fear of mistakes because failure is a result too. Many technology startups operate on the principle of “quick mistakes.” You are allowed to make mistakes; it is no big deal, but you need to make them as fast as you can, without wasting too much time or resources. Of course, the lesson must be learned and you should not repeat the same mistake twice.

Change processes. A horizontal organization is mobile — none of its systems or processes are set in stone. If you know how you can improve, fine-tune, or even overhaul them, go ahead instead of trying to adjust to what you have.

Pay attention to yourself first of all. You are the one responsible for your decisions in a horizontal organization, so there is no point in looking for culprits. It is important to look at yourself from the outside, to see your role in any mistake (even someone else’s), and to analyze what you could have done differently for a better outcome.

Keep growing. Without external control, one is tempted to limit their responsibilities to routine tasks and not to make any ambitious plans. You should fight this temptation because working in a horizontal organization requires a higher degree of awareness. Project planning, time management, workflow optimization, soft skills — choose what you need the most and study it.

Look for compromises. One of the biggest challenges of horizontal management is to trust one another’s opinion. You colleagues are as professional as you are, but they may have their own objectives, experiments, and priorities. Negotiation skills are paramount: instead of projecting your expectations on others or harbouring negativity, you should address any possible misunderstanding and proactively resolve conflicts.

What can a professional gain from working in a horizontal company?

Horizontal organizations are less prone to bureaucracy, more flexible, and easier to change. It helps them survive in a quickly evolving world and stay in the market. Moreover, it creates almost limitless growth opportunities for those who are interested.

You will learn to take action. In a horizontal company, anyone can suggest an idea and get an opportunity of implementing it, which is a useful skill for life in general.

You will learn to own your decisions. Work in a horizontal organization is not only about self-motivation — it is also about responsibility. Your decision is yours alone, and no one else’s.

You will be able to try a variety of roles. You will learn to address a variety of tasks and try out multiple roles inside your team, which is hardly ever possible in vertical hierarchies.

The importance of planning and goal-setting will become tangible. An employee’s development is in their own hands. You will learn to tell between important and urgent tasks and between routine and strategic needs, determining your own direction and pace.

You will build a career. An ability to work without top-down control, independence, and decision-making skills coupled with a responsible attitude form a great foundation for career growth. More and more Russian and foreign companies are looking for professionals with an experience in horizontal organizations simply because such employees already have the necessary motivation.

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