Joe’s Journal: On Trust and the Flat Organization

“The best example of a large and successful information-based organization, and one without any middle management at all, was the British civil administration in India. The British ran the Indian subcontinent for two hundred years, from the middle of the eighteenth century through World War II. The Indian civil service never had more than one thousand members to administer the vast and densely populated subcontinent. Most of the Britishers lived alone in isolated outposts with their nearest countryman a day or two of travel away, and for the first hundred years there was no telegraph or railroad.

The organization structure was totally flat. ”

— Peter F. Drucker

Peter Drucker is talking about a principle that has a long history in the Catholic Church dating back to Pope Leo XIII (2 March 1810 – 20 July 1903), which was further developed by Blessed Pope John Paul II (18 May 1920 – 2 April 2005). This principle maintains that responsibility and authority should be pushed down to the lowest level at which the function can be carried out. Individuals should be given responsibility and trust all the way down the line. This principle was also Drucker’s foundation for his idea of the Plant Community developed in his two major books during the 1940s.  The idea of the Plant Community is to seek to make everyone a manager; everyone assumes managerial responsibility at his or her level within the organization. What he was also saying is that you can get the maximum effectiveness out of an organization if you try to operate this way. This kind of management allows people to take responsibility and demonstrate their strengths and what they can accomplish. People have different levels of capability and drive, and it’s not possible to know what a person is capable of achieving if he or she is never given responsibility and freedom to succeed or fail. Of course this is risky because you have to really trust and know the individuals to whom you grant responsibility and freedom.

[EXPAND More]I had a wonderful experience recently after Bill Pollard (the former chairman of ServiceMaster Co. and a Drucker Institute board member) suggested that I consider a book on Drucker and “Management as a Liberal Art.” I began working on the book and soon found out that I did not possess all the knowledge required to carry it out. I then asked Karen Linkletter, a historian, to join the project. I knew Karen from her time at Claremont Graduate University and was a member of her dissertation committee. I admired her work on the dissertation. She assumed a lot of responsibility for this new research project. The process became a labor of love for me because I was working with a person who was tireless in her commitment to the project. Her devotion encouraged me and provided the inspiration to work as hard as I could over almost a three-year period. I am very happy about the results: a book and three related articles. I believe they will be a success. But I am most proud of how we worked together. It’s an example of what is possible when you trust people and let them do what they’re capable of doing. We were not a large research group, but I believe we demonstrated many of the flat principles of organization discussed by Drucker.

— Joe Maciariello[/EXPAND]