Ways to Flatten the Organization for Fun and Profit.

There are so many tell-tale signs of the old world that appear normal to some – because it's all they've ever known. When the structure changes, so must the cosmetics, because form usually follows function.

The physical layout, titles, dress codes, the common language used, how information flows, who talks first, and who critiques whom – these are the trappings that reflect the philosophy of a company.

Here are some of the cultural norms we have modified at The Phelps Group to bring these elements into alignment with our organization's working model.
Change the language – and the behavior follows.
Our language is like a computer's operating system. We are programmed by it. Here are some words and phrases we do (and don't) encourage to effect a change in attitudes.

Don't use:

Boss – it's an old world word. Try team leader, manager, associate or whatever is appropriate. Individuals are their own boss. They don't even have to show up. They simply determine their own level of success by reaping the positive or negative consequences of their actions.

The more responsibility you have, the more you're actually working for the people around you. So say they work with you, not for you. And say you work with someone, not for them.

ASAP – busy schedules and relative importance of tasks render this acronym almost meaningless. Best to agree upon a specific date and time.

Departments – we abolished them at The Phelps Group and refer to people of the same skill as being in the same discipline.

Employees – it smacks of people working for others. Associates seems to work best for us.

Creatives – used in some ad agencies to refer to art directors and writers. This infers that our PR people aren't creative. Or our promotion people, or producers aren't creative. Or, anyone for that matter. It doesn't work in an IMC environment. We refer to our associates by their function: writer, PR specialist, producer, art director, etc.

Sold – don't use "we sold it to the client." Better to say, something like, "We agreed on the concept." The spirit being that we came to the same conclusions and have alignment on next steps. No one wants to be sold. If you don't have alignment, it won't stay sold for long.

I – when referring to what has been accomplished. Give the credit to the team when it's believable.

Tear down the walls.

Let the light in. Let communications flow freely. Encourage unexpected conversations. Encourage being out of your “office” and working with others.

Abolish walled offices, which have traditionally been symbols of hierarchical rank.

Have everyone work in comfortable, functional, efficient work stations designed for people who spend most of their time on the computer or on the phone. Size these workstations so that they promote the use of common meeting rooms for groups larger than two or three (which tend to get loud).

Have the senior level associates “walk the talk” by having standard-sized workstations. Give the less experienced associates some of the larger workstations, to make it apparent that workstation size and location have nothing to do with a person's value to the company.

Let the savings from needing fewer square feet per person flow to lower prices to clients, higher salaries, retirement funds and higher profits.

Make titles functional – not hierarchical.


– no one wants to be supervised. They want to be led. They want to be coached.

Executive – who isn't an executive in professional services in a flat organization? Words like specialists, managers, leaders may work better.

Senior – it's a relative term. Age is not much of an issue. Productivity is the yardstick, not seniority. And in many cases the younger are more productive because of their technological skills or energy level. This is not to say that we don't respect and revere the wisdom that comes with age and experience. But titles are not the place to show this respect. (Plus once you're over 40, you'd probably rather not be referred to as "senior.")

With this spirit in mind, consider allowing people to make up their own titles. The guideline is to be descriptive of the functions performed, not a person's relative importance within the organization.

In this same spirit, encourage the use of first names. Have the youngest people call the oldest by their first name. Publish phone lists alphabetized by first name. It's friendlier.

Speaking of lists: Always list people alphabetically – never by rank. This goes for lists of client names as well – even if the client organization still adheres to the old style in its own communications. Don't waste time and suffer anxiety figuring out a pecking order when building “To” and “CC” lists on a memo or report. People aren't offended by seeing their name in alpha order. (But they are offended if you happen to put them lower than they expect in a pecking order listing.)

Have fun!

Our esprit de corps is the core of our success.
It's the most difficult for a competitor to imitate.

They can buy the physical things. The thing they can't buy is the dedication, devotion – the feeling we're participating in a cause or a crusade. 

Herb Kelleher, former CEO, Southwest Airlines

We all know it comes down to the people. Our belief is that happy people are more productive. And conversely, the people who are most productive are probably the happiest people.

So we work hard on the "wa" (Japanese term for harmony) at our agency. Our clients, suppliers and other visitors comment on it. They say they can feel it when they walk in the front door.

There is no one key to creating a fun atmosphere. But my sense is that it doesn't start with fun toys, colors or dogs. It starts with the vision and mission – and from that point, the rest is details.

Abolish rules for dress, attendance and work hours.

This is not as radical as it may sound.

The way we address these situations is to operate with the understanding that we hire only adults. Meaning, our associates must be smart and aware enough to:

  • Know when their teammates need them to be in the office
  • Know when and how to alert their teammates when they're not in the office
  • Know which meetings to attend (once they've been notified a meeting is scheduled)
  • Know how to dress to show an acceptable level of respect for their teammates and clients (after all, our company is in the business of building images)

Our associates' performance is measured by how well they meet their company-related goals by their contribution to:

  • The quality of the work
  • Our profit
  • Our environment

Our associates are measured by their performance, not hours spent in the office. It's about productivity. As important as effort is, it may not equate to performance.

Working 50 hours a week doesn't necessarily make someone more valuable to the organization than someone who works 40 hours. If one believes they can increase their productivity 50% by working 60 hours. It's their life, and they'll reap the consequences – whether it's an increase in salary, the chance to work on more exciting client projects, a damaged home life or a one-dimensional life totally focused on work.

Ours is not piecework done on an assembly line. We virtually never produce something exactly the same way twice. Things change. We get better at what we're doing. Every job is a custom job. We're always thinking. Our clients pay us for our brand-building, sales-generating ideas. Who knows when these ideas may appear?

So considering the fact that we hire self-motivated, success-driven individuals who are working (thinking) when they are in the shower, at the breakfast table, on the freeway, while meditating, in the bar or on the golf course – not to mention 2 a.m. press checks, weekend trade shows and
16-hour film shoots – who are we to say when they must be in the office?

In fact, it's important to remind associates from time to time to be careful about judging others by when they happen to arrive at the office. Only that person knows what's going on in their life. And they are the one who reaps the reward (or lack thereof) for their level of work.

The success of this way of working is affected by our associates' ability to be assertive enough to speak honestly to a teammate when that person's schedule is interfering with the team's productivity or work relationships.