The Upside-Down Org Chart

01 Dec 2013

A corporate organizational chart is drawn as a tree. It’s got a CEO at the root and then splits out to executives and then keeps branching further until you get to the people doing the actual work. Weirdly, this tree is drawn with the root up in the sky and individual contributors (often drawn very small) at the bottom. We use words like “managing up” and “climbing the corporate ladder” and “the decision came from above” as a reflection of this mental image – CEO on top, people on bottom. The up/down contrast is important because in this structure the people on top have more power to make decisions, more interesting labor to perform, and higher compensation. Those at the top communicate commands and desires down to people at the bottom. The top jobs are in every way better.

"Working at BigCo® is so much fun!"
— BigCo® CEO

This structure is very old. It’s basically patriarchy and appears in armies, farms, and governments almost as far back as we have historical records[1]. This structure is traditionally quite static - wherever you start is where you stay. Nobody wants to give up a higher spot to someone else and certainly nobody wants to move down. Napoleon’s Grande Armèe was one of the first organizations to attempt promotion based on merit and not class and we’ve adopted that compromise in modern corporations. But both in the Napoleon’s case and ours “merit” is so vague as to be indistinguishable from class.

I know hundreds of developers who refuse to work at a large company because of this structure. Nobody wants their work to be compromised by constantly having to “manage up” and certainly nobody wants to hand the benefits of their work to somebody else. There’s a saying I keep hearing that goes “Nobody quits their job, they quit their boss.” And there are plenty of bad managers in tech – often a result of “promoting” a veteran engineer to people management as a retention strategy.

Unions try to solve the problem of bad managers and top-down negative pressure by pushing upwards through collective bargaining. Elon Musk famously claimed you don’t need unions if you just fire the assholes. But if you’ve got nice managers exerting negative pressure downwards[2] because of the very structure of the organization, then firing just the jerks won’t save you.

Some companies are experimenting with a flat management structure to solve this problem. GitHub, Stripe and Valve are famously self-organized. Morning Star is a non-tech company that has succeeded with the non-managerial approach as well. The theory is that if there are fewer people above you on the org chart then there is less negative pressure on you and you’ll be able to produce at the same high potential as if you were entirely self-directed. A self-managed company accepts increased chaos and takes a risk of potential non-productivity and in return gets the value of actually highly increased individual productivity. It’s as if every employee were the CEO of their own little company.

Yehuda isn't a fan of the flat-structure approach.

Removing managers rescues us from TPS reports and micro-managing but we still need to form into teams to accomplish anything of note. We can let these teams occur organically but then we suffer from the realities of emergent behavior: Left alone long enough every self-organizing bay area software team will accidentally build a bartending quad-copter running Node. There will never emerge a QuickBooks replacement that’s tax-compliant in all 50 states and Puerto Rico. You’re going to get a product that meets the immediate, bodily-felt needs of its creators because there’s no structure in place to acquire information from customers, verify the accuracy of this information, and provide it in a usable form to the engineers.

There is a solution to bad managers that doesn’t require a flat company structure: good managers. And I don’t mean good people as managers (most bad managers are very friendly); I mean people who believe their job is to empower those they serve and make it easier for the individuals to function as a group. A good manager directs and augments the energies of a team without adding resistance to that energy. A good manager thinks their team is their boss. And a good manager expects the same support from their manager.

To get leaders like this you don’t just need to hire well, you need to reorganize your structure to illustrate the roles. If we want managers to be empowering we need to fix our org charts to be a proper tree: root on bottom, branches above, leaves on top.

This inverted[3] org chart effectively evens out the broken power dynamics of the patriarchal model. The language itself is fixed: “I rely on my manager.” “I support my team.” “Because we’re way up here the CEO needs us to tell them what we see.” “I’m not sure I want to take on the weight of another team – that’s a lot to support.”

There are no "promotions" here; you can move to positions with less organizational responsibility and more task responsibility or vice versa.

This also helps us fix compensation because if there’s a sense that someone near the root is actually holding up more of the company (and the people they serve feel that support) then it doesn’t feel unjust to pay them more.

For a tech company to describe their structure this way requires some humility from the leadership. It requires accepting that senior positions must be evaluated based on the support given to individuals on the team rather than the support given to the CEO or executives. But it makes the structure one in which nothing is extracted from the laborers – indeed it provides help that an individual could not find working alone.

If you want an engineer to work as slowly and sadly as possible, place them at a BigCo® where all the power is top-down (CEO-down) and tell them what to do. If you want them to produce something amazing, then place them in a team of people with all the resources of a supporting manager, a supporting corporate team, and total freedom to do their best work in the way they best see fit. You need only communicate the needs of the end customer clearly and then the work will get done.


  1. ^ Patriarchy only goes back about 3,000 years and seems to have originated as a survival mechanism during times of trouble.
  2. ^ This study asked 3 people to write a paper and put one person nominally in charge. When the group was given 5 cookies the ‘boss’ would eat 2 cookies, not just 1, and would typically do it sloppily with their mouth open and getting crumbs on their shirt: So the very nature of ‘boss’ causes good people to have a negative effect on those they boss.
  3. ^ Let’s be real, this isn’t a new idea. It’s ancient, well-loved, and just very rarely used in human organizations. Or, if you prefer,

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