Kelly O’Donnel: flat, non-hierarchical organizations do not work

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at: lawrence@krubner.com, or follow me on Twitter.

Thesis: Every time an organization claims to be flat and non-hierarchical, it is actually hierarchical, but the chain of command is invisible and based on the personal charisma of particular people, or sometimes based on their ability to bully and manipulate others. An organization without a formal structure will have an informal structure made up of various cliques. Is this better? Formally hierarchical structures can be frustrating, but they are transparent about who actually holds power, which is an important form of transparency. In flat, non-hierarchical organizations, the informality means that when there is a problem, those who actually hold power can easily pretend that they don’t hold power, and therefore they should not be held accountable, and also they can pretend that they have no power to effect change, even though they really do. As Jo Freeman once wrote:

Contrary to what we would like to believe, there is no such thing as a structureless group. Any group of people of whatever nature that comes together for any length of time for any purpose will inevitably structure itself in some fashion. The structure may be flexible; it may vary over time; it may evenly or unevenly distribute tasks, power and resources over the members of the group. But it will be formed regardless of the abilities, personalities, or intentions of the people involved. The very fact that we are individuals, with different talents, predispositions, and backgrounds makes this inevitable. Only if we refused to relate or interact on any basis whatsoever could we approximate structurelessness — and that is not the nature of a human group.

There are certain organizational techniques that are universal to both the arts and business. I conducted a long interview with Kelly O’Donnel, who was a co-founder of the Flux Theater Ensemble. I was fascinated to realize that some of her complaints about flat, non-hierarchical arts organizations mirrored my own complaints about mistakes I’d seen in the world of tech startups.

This is an excerpt from our longer interview.

We start off talking about the various conflicts she had to deal with at Flux Theater Ensemble.

Krubner: It sounds like there are a lot of potential conflicts.

O’Donnell: Yes, a lot of conflicts. And we work through it. Ultimately we figure out what works best.

Krubner: Yes, but how? I’d like to know more. This is the question that interests me most. I’m curious about why so many artists scenes fall apart. Even when the individual artists seem to love the scene, even when the participants remember the scene fondly, even when the participants later say “Oh, those were the best years of my life.” And yet still, the scene falls apart. People don’t know how to deal with the conflicts? That’s part of what interests me so much about Flux. You’ve lasted longer than most. Especially for a group that has no endowment and no government funding. You’ve been working together for 15 years and you are still going. Flux is rare. I know you’ve all gotten busy with other things, but still, you are still active together. You must have a secret? You’ve lasted longer than many arts organizations, especially those that are supported almost entirely with volunteer labor.

O’Donnell: We’ve lasted longer than most. We’ve also lost a lot of people. A lot of people who were initially very passionate about Flux and then, for different reasons, leave. And I think they leave because the way the company works in their life is different than what they were expecting. Perhaps they come in thinking “Oh, I’m going to play these awesome roles, I’m going to be seen by a lot of people, this is really going to help my career.” And sometimes that doesn’t happen. People don’t get what they want. And that leads to resentment, that leads to a break down in communications, destruction of relationships, and eventually the people leave. It’s awful but it is the truth. Or, sometimes people come in, and they do get to play great roles, and it helps them, it does lead to other jobs, but then they start getting a lot of work outside of Flux, they get amazing work, they are busy with theater, they get film roles, but they are no longer members of Flux. They might be members on paper, but de facto they have left. Some people have gone on to have amazing careers, which is great, but they are no longer part of Flux. So the relationship falls apart or drifts away. And then there is the clash of ideals, which still happens, and that is the more destructive thing, that tears apart companies, when you have 2, or maybe 3, people who have very strong opinions that clash, and they hold onto those opinions for dear life, and they become unable to work together. At Flux, for a long time, we were able to have really strong opinions, really strong egos, but to also let it go, to know when to quit, because ultimately we were thinking about the health of the ensemble, the welfare of the company, we valued the ensemble more than we valued what our individual means were with the company. And, I think that sounds good, it sounds good to say we are totally selfless, we are a non-hierarchical structure, the only reason we do this is for the health of the ensemble, the health of the communities that we engage with. That sounds good on paper, but in reality, it’s a dream. Because even if you say you are non-hierarchical and you say you have a flat structure, the person with the most articulate vision, the person with the strongest voice, is always going to end up being the leader, and everything is going to go their way. I think this idea of pure ensemble, non-hierarchical art-making is really rare, I would even argue, perhaps, it is a dream. And I think there is a false idea being promoted by a lot of industry leaders, that we are moving toward a non-hierarchical industry.

Krubner: Okay, so here is a subject that I actually know something about. Because something very similar is happening in the world of tech startups, where I work. Almost every entrepreneur that I’ve worked with in recent years have insisted that they want to set up a flat organization, a non-hierarchical organization, an agile organization where everyone is empowered to make decisions. And yet the rhetoric is always false. The organizations remain hierarchical. To the extent that money is involved, then the top people still make all the decisions, and to the extent that money is not involved, the situations tend to play out the way you describe, with the person with the strongest voice tending to win every argument and thus get their way. Aside from the top officiers, there is no formal specification of who gets to make a decision, which can lead to policy changing with every meeting, as one person or another comes in with their opinion and makes an argument for doing whatever they want to do. What I find especially frustrating is how dishonest the rhetoric becomes. In these so-called flat organizations, informal, invisible, hidden relationships determine everything. If you are friends with the CEO then you have more leverage than anyone else. It is a dishonest rhetoric that hides who actually holds power at the moment.

O’Donnell: Yes, I completely agree. And, this might sound a little hyperbolic, but it can feel really Orwellian: you get to the point where you are like, am I crazy, or is the world around me crazy?

Krubner: The CEO no longer wants to be seen as a tyrant who is giving an order, so now the employees are supposed to figure out what the CEO wants, and then pretend that they agree with the CEO’s opinion. Honest disagreement could lead to healthy debate, yet there is a reduced chance for employees to go on the record with an honest disagreement, because of this need to create the illusion that the organization is non-hierarchical and so the CEO is definitely not giving an order. This false rhetoric about non-hierarchical organizations can be damaging in a business setting. Mostly because it is never true. And then there is the crazy thing where someone is acting nice, and you’re getting stabbed in the back, and in a sense it is more maddening. I found myself craving an open confrontation, because it would at least feel more honest. I wouldn’t feel so crazy. I don’t want nice smiling people to stab me in the back, it is too confusing. It would be better to have an enemy who says “I hate you!” At least that offers a kind of clarity.

O’Donnell: Right! The positions of power become cloudy, I think that is true, especially when the people in power pretend that they don’t hold the power. I think the responsible thing to do is for the people in power is to admit that they are in power, and to realize that they are in power, and to hold themselves accountable for that, it is a great responsibility, and they have the power to lead a company to do something great.

Krubner: I agree, I think the most important form of transparency in government, or any kind of governance, is simply to be honest about who holds the power, and that means formally saying so.

O’Donnell: Yes, and I think it’s possible for the power to shift. It might be possible for a theater company to function the same way that Congress does, so that every few years, or every few projects, the power structure shifts, and that sort of does happen, no matter what, even in the sort of non-hierarchical structure (which I don’t think exists). But when you’re actually doing a project, there is a clear hierarchical structure, there is a director and they are in charge, and it has to be that way, and the actors want it to be that way, and there is a playwright, and you have to say the words that they wrote, you can’t just go off and say any words that you want, and there is a set designer who is building a set for a specific play, you can’t just make random changes. There are different levels of power. But with structuring a company, it is helpful to make everyone feel like they are leaders, feel empowered to make choices, and to feel like their actions matter, their ideas matter, but I also think it helps to have a clear hierarchical structure, with someone transparently pulling the strings. The buck has to stop somewhere. What I think it can lead to, if you have a non-hierarchical structure, is diluting the work and minimizing its potential. See, you have to make decisions by consensus, and you have to have a meeting, and you have to let everyone have a voice, everyone needs to be heard, you have to honor that, and then you have to have some kind of vote, you need some kind of democracy, and when you do that, you are always going to water something down, because I could be an artist in the room with a really amazing idea and I know that if we could all get behind this we could shift the world, but through the consensus building, you have to make compromises, you have to dilute that vision, to get to a place that works for the whole ensemble, so it might help the ensemble, but individually, it is exhausting, and so that is why people eventually leave, they don’t feel empowered, they feel like they are sacrificing too much. It mirrors society in some ways.

For anyone who might be interested, the theme of “How can we help great art scenes last” was also a theme of my interview with Martha Mendenhall, and was one of the main themes I explore in my novel How The Young Anna Barnev Established Her Career As A Graphic Designer.

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Also of note:

On this particular subject, the most famous essay is The Tyranny Of Structurelessness by Jo Freeman. If this subject interests you, then you should certainly read her essay. Here is a relevant excerpt:

For everyone to have the opportunity to be involved in a given group and to participate in its activities the structure must be explicit, not implicit. The rules of decision-making must be open and available to everyone, and this can happen only if they are formalized. This is not to say that formalization of a structure of a group will destroy the informal structure. It usually doesn’t. But it does hinder the informal structure from having predominant control and make available some means of attacking it if the people involved are not at least responsible to the needs of the group at large. “Structurelessness” is organizationally impossible. We cannot decide whether to have a structured or structureless group, only whether or not to have a formally structured one. Therefore the word will not be used any longer except to refer to the idea it represents. Unstructured will refer to those groups which have not been deliberately structured in a particular manner. Structured will refer to those which have. A Structured group always has formal structure, and may also have an informal, or covert, structure. It is this informal structure, particularly in Unstructured groups, which forms the basis for elites.

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