Ditching Flat: How Structure Helped Us Move Faster

October 15, 2015

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Chris Savage

Founder, CEO

From the beginning, one of the things that made working at Wistia feel really exciting and fun was our flat organizational structure. I felt proud showing off our team dynamic to new employees, because I knew that we approached work in an egalitarian way — there were huge opportunities for individuals to jump in and make a real difference.

Flat was startup-y and awesome. Structure was BigCorp-y and boring.

As our company grew from 2 to 30 people, I was surprised to see how the strengths of a flat organization turned into our team’s biggest weaknesses.

Letting go of our “flat” management style was one of the toughest adjustments that we had to make as we scaled the business. We ended up doing something that I never planned to do — create an organizational chart. And it turned out to be one of the best decisions we made.

“Letting go of our ’flat’ management style was one of the toughest adjustments that we had to make as we scaled the business.”

By establishing an explicit org structure, we’ve grown from 30 to 60 people while retaining the energy, creativity, and risk-taking that characterized the earliest days at Wistia.

The flat years: from 2 to 30

My management experience pre-Wistia was comprised of working as a host and busboy at restaurants and commiserating with friends who also hated being told what to do.

I found this inexplicably tidy, abandoned alley where no one tells me what to do.

From the beginning, we were afraid of creating a company that required rigid management to get work done.

That’s why we built Wistia with a totally flat org structure. We didn’t have a defined framework for making decisions. Instead, we focused on giving people autonomy.

Defining ownership

When we were still under 30 people, defining ownership was the key to our progress. For every part of the business, we asked, “Who is responsible for getting this done?”

It’s a simple question, but one that’s easy to ignore when there are tons of different projects going on. Everyone wants to help solve the biggest and most important problems. Defining ownership balances responsibility across the organization, so that everyone can move quickly while feeling confident that our bases are covered.

Being the owner of a project doesn’t mean others can’t jump in to help. It just means that you are responsible for thinking about and organizing the progress on that part of the business.

With individual ownership, our team members were more motivated to move their projects forward faster. Without micromanagement, decision-making bottlenecks opened up, all while the business stayed flat, without the need for managerial overhead.

But letting people make their own decisions can be scary. In fact, for the founder of a startup, it’s often terrifying. What if they make mistakes? What if they make the same mistakes I’ve made before? Chances are, they will. But by giving people the authority to make their own mistakes, you also give them the authority to learn from them.

Defining clear ownership — instead of having shared ownership — was absolutely key to scaling while we were flat. By entrusting people to own parts of the business from the get-go, people got up to speed very quickly and the business moved much faster.

When flat breaks down

Early on, we were never super explicit about how we made decisions as a company, and that tended to work in our favor. It meant that everyone dabbled in every decision. Anyone could share their two cents on any project, and we were collectively on the lookout for opportunities to improve.

This lack of clarity created an insane amount of chaos and allowed us to be more creative. Things were always shifting on a dime and wild ideas showed up at every turn.

As we grew, our flatness broke down. And the problem was me.

As your company gets bigger, responsibilities get chopped up into smaller pieces. The relationships between areas of ownership become exceedingly complex, which clouds the decision-making process. For us, it became hard to take risks — no one was clear on who was responsible for what. We moved more slowly, and it felt harder to learn and be creative.

While people on the team made smaller decisions about their parts of the business, I ultimately acted as a bottleneck for major decisions.

We began to realize that by building a company with a flat org structure, we had done the exact opposite of what we had intended. We had centralized all the decision-making, and we were relying on a secret implicit structure to make progress.

Every company has a structure. If you don’t explicitly define your structure, then you are left with an implicit one, and that can stifle productivity. We had hoped that being flat would let us move faster and be more creative, but as we grew, we ended up with an unspoken hierarchy that actually slowed down our ability to execute.

“If you don’t explicitly define your structure, then you are left with an implicit one, and that can stifle productivity.”

Explicit structure: from 30 to 60

I took way too long to realize that an organization is an ever-evolving thing. I associated being flat with our company identity, and that made it hard to change. Flat no longer worked for us, and we needed to evolve beyond it.

We drew out an org chart that makes ownership and authority more explicit, and it’s done wonders for us.

An org chart is a map of the growing organism that is your company. If you have a clear map, it makes it easier for everyone to know how to navigate communication and decision-making, and feel more comfortable that you’re headed in the right direction.

Delegating, not centralizing authority

Rather than use an org chart to set up a command-and-control management structure, we’ve sought to do the exact opposite.

With a flat structure, projects with undefined ownership would default to me — with a stated org structure, every project has a clear owner.

Our org structure has teams and managers.

Each team in the company has clearly defined roles. If you are making a decision that has an effect on other people on a different team, then it’s your responsibility to get their buy-in. For example, let’s say the creative team is drafting marketing copy. This will impact team members who are working directly on the product. It falls on the creative team to liaise with the product and marketing teams to make sure everyone’s on board.

Managers are responsible for making sure that their reports have access to all the resources they need to own certain projects. By delegating responsibilities and authority, managers can empower their teams to move faster with fewer bottlenecks.

Our structure in action

For the launch of our enterprise plan — typically a time when companies opt for a buttoned-up, risk-averse approach — we went with a parade, complete with a waddling penguin.

This creative approach was bolstered by our team structure. First, our head of product marketing, Phil Nottingham, decided on certain parameters for the launch video. It needed to generate buzz, it needed to feel relevant to viewers discovering it months from now, and most importantly, it needed to draw attention to the new Enterprise plan.

Next, the creative team took the reins and brainstormed tons of ideas. Once they landed on a one-shot parade video, our video producer, Chris Lavigne, began organizing the effort. Defining Chris as the clear owner of the project meant that he could delegate tasks large and small, which all contributed to a successful production.

“It’s true that many hands make light work. The biggest task on the day of the parade was to decorate the truck and trailer. So we asked for volunteers to help come in super early and lend a hand. I delegated specific roles to folks that signed up. Head float decorator. Balloon wrangler. GoPro mounter. And with those leaders in place, the rest of the volunteers lent a hand to whoever needed it the most. All of this wouldn’t have been possible without buy-in from the team that this was a worthwhile effort, so for that I’m thankful!” - Chris Lavigne”

The video was one of the most ambitious things we’ve ever done, and the entire launch required coordination across product, engineering, design, creative, operations, customer happiness… everyone, actually. What’s inspiring is that rather than ending up with a watered-down compromise, we produced something that we were all super proud of.

We announced our plan just before I took off on paternity leave for one month. After the team pulled off the launch, it felt amazing to know that things would motor on for the next month without needing me around at all.

Future: from 60 to beyond

It’s easy to get caught up in buzzwords like “flat.” Sometimes when I tell startup people that Wistia has an org chart, they look back at me totally horrified.

What’s important to us at Wistia is that we’re able to do our work effectively. The org structure we have is just the means to an end.

To create the org chart, we had to throw out a stale part of our identity, reflect on what really mattered to us, and come up with something new, based on our principles. It was a painful process, but sometimes that’s the only way you can grow.

“We had to throw out a stale part of our identity, reflect on what really mattered to us, and come up with something new, based on our principles.”

Our current structure is working really well today, but it requires a ton of active work to make sure that we’re getting ownership and communication right. As we add more people and the work continues to grow in complexity, the only sure thing we know is that we’ll need to throw everything out and rebuild it all over again.

I can’t wait.

October 15, 2015

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Chris Savage

Founder, CEO

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