“To comport oneself with perfect propriety in Polygonal society, one ought to be a Polygon oneself”
Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions
Edwin Abbott’s story is a satirical riff on rigid hierarchy. It’s a literal flat land – as in two-dimensional – but flatlander society is anything but. The inhabitants are grouped into immutable social castes according to their number of sides. But the inhabitants only see each others edges, within the plane they share. Never from above. Only a careful study in recognizing the subtleties of distance allows a hexagon to be distinguished from an octagon. The higher classes are granted this study, while the lower classes are left to hide their confusion behind a blanket deference to their betters.
I think one of the common concerns raised about flat organization is that it is confusing and chaotic. Anyone can be responsible for anything? How is stuff going to get done? Who do I ask about X? How do we make a decision if we don’t know who is “supposed” to make it? How do I know when I can say “no” and when I should compromise?
These are all legitimate questions! Flat organization is strange and confusing, if you’re inexperienced in it. But I ask you to wonder about the conventional, hierarchical organization that feels more comfortable to you. Think about the times when you’ve just gone along with a decision you thought was dumb, just because somebody higher up said so. Think about the times when you were doing work that you know was unchallenging and rote, just because that was your job. Think about the times you had to complete a task in a completely pointless, wasteful way, just because the person who made the requirements doesn’t actually know the work, at all.
How did you cope with those situations? How did you avoid getting too frustrated or confused with your lack of agency to change them? How do we accept them day in, day out? I suggest that it’s simple: we’re raised in hierarchical organization. We’re trained to navigate hierarchy deftly, to “climb the ladder.” We’re taught to accept the inefficiencies and dissatisfaction as natural, and to focus only outcomes like sales, salary and promotions.
In a polygonal society, we’re all polygons. When a sphere visits Flatland, the (square) protagonist is utterly baffled by the notions of three-dimensional space. The novel is a classic expression of the basic sociological impulse: to consider that we might seem just as strange through the eyes of another society as they seem to us.
A little dose of that thinking is necessary when making the leap to flat organization. It means suspending the immediate impulse to dismiss practices as strange, and to be willing to question some of what we have taken for granted as normal about conventional, hierarchical organizations. It’s not always easy or straightforward work.
Of course, the onus is on flatvocates to demonstrate that the benefits of flatness are worth the growing pains.