The Flattened Firm—Not as Advertised
Executive Summary — For decades, management consultants and the popular business press have urged large firms to flatten their hierarchies. Flattening (or delayering, as it is also known) typically refers to the elimination of layers in a firm's organizational hierarchy, and the broadening of managers' spans of control. While flattening is said to reduce costs, its alleged benefits flow primarily from changes in internal governance: by pushing decisions downward, firms not only enhance customer and market responsiveness, but also improve accountability and morale. But has flattening actually delivered on its promise and pushed decisions down to lower-level managers? In this paper, Julie Wulf shows that flattening actually can lead to exactly the opposite effects from what it promises to do. Wulf used a large-scale panel data set of reporting relationships, job descriptions, and compensation structures in a sample of over 300 large U.S. firms over roughly a 15-year period. This historical data analysis was complemented with exploratory interviews with executives (what CEOs say) and analysis of data on executive time use (what CEOs do). Results suggest that flattening transferred some decision rights from lower-level division managers to functional managers at the top. Flattening is also associated with increased CEO involvement with direct reports—the second level of top management—suggesting a more hands-on CEO at the pinnacle of the hierarchy. In sum, flattening at the top is a complex phenomenon that in the end looks more like centralization. Yet it is crucial to consider different types of decisions and activities and how they vary by level in the hierarchy. Key concepts include:
- Firms may flatten structure to delegate decisions, but doing so can lead to unintended consequences for other aspects of internal governance. For instance, a manager may flatten structure to push decisions down and then hire and develop division managers suited to "being the boss."
- If flattening actually pushes decisions up, division managers are now out of sync with the organization: They don't have autonomy to make decisions and there is a mismatch between managerial talent and decision rights.
- A change in structure has implications not only for who makes decisions, but also for how decisions are made. Flatter structures involve different roles for the CEO and the senior team.
For decades, management consultants and the popular business press have urged large firms to flatten their hierarchies. Flattening (or delayering, as it is also known) typically refers to the elimination of layers in a firm's organizational hierarchy, and the broadening of managers' spans of control. The alleged benefits of flattening flow primarily from pushing decisions downward to enhance customer and market responsiveness and to improve accountability and morale. Has flattening delivered on its promise to push decisions downward? In this article, I present evidence suggesting that while firms have delayered, flattened firms can exhibit more control and decision-making at the top. Managers take note. Flattening can lead to exactly the opposite effects from what it promises to do.