Architectural practices should not be flattened

Addressing the misconception that distributed leadership requires everyone to be equivalent and in a flat organisational structure.

Leadership is not the same as management.

When leadership is conflated with management we run into problems.
They’re not the same, nor should they be.

Leadership is not a position it’s an action.
You are not made a leader you choose to lead.

Management is a position, it’s given to you.

Management is about power over others.
Leadership is about giving power to others.
Both are necessary within successful practices.

Leadership is about supporting people.
Management is about supporting the work.

It’s not about equivalence

The point is everyone in a practice is not equivalent. The point is for everyone to have agency and ownership of the work they’re doing. Everyone can lead but not everyone has the same responsibilities. Practice and projects need to be managed. And managing requires a level of hierarchy with a project.

Trust

In a hierarchical structure, trust within the team isn’t necessarily required – but nevertheless desirable. When leadership is distributed, trust becomes a key principle. Trust that everyone is working towards the same objectives, guided by the same values and vision, and with the same commitment to the practice and the work.

Trust is important in the context of a flat structure because a lack of trust is the biggest reason why practices (or it’s so called leaders) are reluctant to embrace distributed leadership, and flatten their structure.

Responsibility

In a more distributed leadership structure there still needs to be clear delineation of responsibilities. Balancing individual autonomy with practice direction and management. These are best guided by boundaries established up front by senior leadership team.

Tim Ferriss, for example, described how boundaries delivered greater autonomy in his sport supplement business. Constantly being interrupted to make small decisions he made a rule that any decision involving a sale less than a certain amount could be made without his input. He distributed the decision making process. In an architectural practice, for example, boundaries might be established around values, vision or conceptual frameworks for a project. Giving staff agency to make any decision within the established boundaries, without fear nor favour.

Responsibility is defined within the practice boundaries and job description. This is what allows practices’ organisational structure to become flatter and more distributed. It doesn’t prevent it.

Decision making

Decision making is a central responsibility of management. And boundaries are key here. In 2002 Google, for example, in an effort to drive speedier concept development, tried a flattened organisational structure. It was a disaster. Larry Page was inundated with requests for sign-off on final decisions. He became a massive bottleneck. It’s not possible to run a practice in this way. Boundaries and management are required to streamline the decision-making and prevent bottlenecks. With the level of autonomy and ownership of decisions defined by the practice’s boundaries. It’s not a flattened free for all, or a single decision maker, but a clearly pre-defined structure and process.

It is possible

Flat organisational structures are nevertheless possible. The Carbon Almanac was built that way. Valve operates with a flat structure, as does Zappos. Important to acknowledge they all started with a flat structure, building the culture and the trust. Changing to distributed leadership is a much greater challenge.

The issue for architectural practices is that there is always some hierarchy required for design projects, whether that’s to do with points of contact for the client, or based upon skills, knowledge and experience. Hierarchical and distributed, however, don’t have to be binary conditions.

Flat, not flat

It’s possible to have a distributed, flatter, leadership structure. It shouldn’t be conflated with management structure that’s better described as a responsibility structure. It’s possible to have a flat responsibility structure, but within architectural practices a hierarchy of responsibility is preferable.

When it comes to leadership, flatter is an ideal. It can exist within a hierarchy of responsibility. Both are possible simultaneously.


Image by Вениамин Курочкин [cropped]

Hi! I’m Michael

I’m an architect and coach, helping the professional culture of the architecture profession. I believe the best way to do this is support leadership development.

I’ve worked in architecture for almost 30 years, and ran my own practice for 14 years. I understand architectural practice from the inside out. Fun Fact: my NSW architect’s registration is #10 007 and I have a license to skill.

I help practices work on their leadership team and strategies. Supporting practices to become more open, fluid, and adaptable. Realising the collective energy, passion, and capabilities of their people.

Interested in hearing I can help? Let’s chat about the leadership development of you or your team.
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