I don’t like this expressions: flat structure. The way it is being used around me implies that by sole fact of assigning manager or leader to the team you break some kind of “miracle of flatness”. Such act will of course break the flatness, but this is a smart thing to do in some cases. Flatness is only miraculous when it serves the team.
How does the flat structured team look like?
Ideal flat structured team is set of creative net-workers(no managers), who do not care neither about their job titles nor formal structure, but instead are contributing value to reach a common goal. There is still management to be done in such team, but instead of being handled by nominated member it is put upon shoulders of all team members. This desirably fosters engagement and unifies team by giving sense of common goal and acceptance. But to get these benefits team members must be aware of all aspects of team’s existence (management, importance of innovation etc.) and not let them slip into oblivion. This is not always the case, actually I believe this is a rarity.
Dangers of flat structure
I have seen teams being granted almost unrestrained freedom and choking with it for months, until someone decided to break this nonsense, whether from inside or outside. And rightfully so, obviously team haven’t been ready. Given that we are currently in raging worldwide shortage of IT-stuff, assuming that most of the teams have necessary skills is just wishful thinking(to say at least).
Because of that I do not believe that completely flat team structure is appropriate for most of the teams. Team working under good management/leadership done by nominated person can be very effective, especially when such person is an experienced insider. If such person does good job it gets recognized by team members, who usually want to keep such non-flat team structure. And there is nothing not-agile about this. On the contrary – as one of my wise colleagues said: part of being agile is doing things that work.
When is it applicable?
On the other hand I’ve been part of small but self-managed team. That was awesome experience that I am hoping to repeat. As usual all depends on people. But one does not always have multi-skilled, engaged experts around to form a team. Self-management is the final stage of evolution.
And when it’s not?
Secrets of evolution are time and death. Letting average team self-manage itself from tomorrow on is putting them to (near-)death over short time. In some extreme cases efforts put into couching and animating such team resemble image of encouraging nearly dead body to run by electro-shocking. At certain (in my experiences long lasting) stage of team’s evolution things like identifying obstacles, helping clarity of focus, alleviating the pressure, fighting technological stagnation and others alike can be handled by designated people more effectively then by not ready team members.
This would be nice to have team take over these regards, a bit at a time. But again in reality this is not always possible, for example due to lack of stability in the team itself. Team stability, team members engagement and strive for perfection are key factors that allows SCRUM grow deep, fast and strong. In case of lack of presence of these factor one has to adjust the tools, keep team as agile as possible, coach (or manage?) into right direction and still get the work done.