No pyramid does not mean horizontal
Why we need to think equality differently
One major common misconception about non-pyramidal organization is that the system becomes flat, or horizontal. The problem is that the shift to self governance is not something that can be explained nor understood with a 2D representation. When we oppose pyramids to flat structures, we are trying to innovate while keeping the same worldview. It's easier to do, but in terms of organization, can lead to a significant loss of efficiency. Because we can't imagine the world otherwise, the tendency is to hold the underlying belief that when we suppress hierarchy, everyone must be equal, and try to reach consensus on any decision. If no one is on top, then it means that we must all agree before taking action. This leads to never-ending discussions to reach common agreement, that tremendously slow down the progress of the project. This pitfall is easy to observe in political institutions such as the EU or the UN, where the structural need for agreement slows progress so much that it becomes slower than the societal changes that these organs are trying to regulate.
A shift of paradigm
High performing self managing organizations overcome this duality between pyramid and flat structures. As my friend Duc explains so well, the shift of paradigm is made by un-correlating people from function. Instead of representing the organization by an org-chart based on people-function identification, the organization is mapped by two spaces: the space of roles and the space of people. To fulfill our purpose, there are N roles to be done by M members. Any person can then pick roles according to their preference, skillset, and common goals. This necessitates a shift of worldview but has many advantages.
First, it allows to have an accessible representation of an organization that can take in the high complexity of human interactions. The need of readability is still answered, but the system becomes simple enough yet flexible enough to really represent who does what accurately.
Second, it allows each person to contribute within their zone of competence while reaching out to roles matching their future aspirations, even when they would be in a totally different department in a classical organization. If I am a well experienced mechanical engineer that wants to learn about marketing, I can keep most of my engineering roles while taking on a small role in marketing, so that I can slowly grow that skill without jeopardizing the project.
Third, it allows for quick decision-making to happen. With a certain set of well-thought rules and processes that apply to everyone, decisions lie in the hand of a person or a small group of persons that have been identified as the most competent on the topic. They hold the pace of the decision and the responsibility of its consequences. The project is no longer stuck in endless validation loops and can advance fast.
Last, and most importantly, it allows to take into account the difference of impact that members have, without turning it into a difference of worth. This is where the hack happens.
Bringing nuance to the notion of equality
In this new model, we acknowledge and give room to the fact that some people, because of their special skillset, experience and expertise, will be more influent than others. As more people will trust them for what they bring, their voice will weigh more. The difference is that this influence is not imposed by a position on the org chart or a title but is gained naturally. As situations evolve, this influence can evolve too, so that the group capitalizes on the strength of each individuals when they're most needed. As a consequence, the group tends towards no ego inflation or deflation related to the gain or loss of influence or impact. Influence is only the result of the congruence between a given skillset hosted by a person, defined by its history and experience, and the needs of the organization at a certain point. It's not related to an acute ontological worth.
The main point here is that people are intrinsically equal in value and worth, but not in influence and contribution. How can we pretend to be all the same since we are all different? Each one of us comes to work with a unique set of experiences, skills, preferences, appetences and capacities. Our contributions are bound to be different, and that's for the best! The whole point is to maximize what we can do together with the collected skillset we have once we put everything in common, so that we can serve our purpose.