From Vertical Ladders to Multidirectional Lattices

MC Escher's "Relativity" courtesy of Nexxgen

As I was listening to my favourite podcasts from Harvard Business Review, I came across the idea of the Corporate Lattice, which was also the title of a book by Cathy Benko and Molly Anderson of Deloitte. It was a fascinating concept in organisational management which debunked the still widely followed traditional hierarchical organisation, while still providing some semblance of order.

According to Deloitte,

"Today a career is no longer a straight climb up the corporate ladder, but rather an undulating journey of climbs and lateral moves. The proverbial corporate ladder is evolving, right before our eyes, into a corporate lattice."

Diagrammatically speaking, the differences between a traditional ladder-like hierarchical organisation and a lattice organisation can be illustrated by this chart from Deloitte:

Courtesy of Deloitte

The Lattice Organisation isn't a brand new concept. In fact, Bill Gore, the original founder of this concept in 1958 (its that old), shared this quote (source):

"The simplicity and order of an authoritarian organization make it an almost irresistible temptation. Yet it is counter to the principles of individual freedom and smothers the creative growth of man. Freedom requires orderly restraint. The restraints imposed by the need for cooperation are minimized with a lattice organization."

So what are the principles of a Lattice Organisation? Adapting from Deloitte:

1) A lattice organisation has multidirectional paths for employees - up and down (career-life fit may dictate a slowing down in latter years), lateral, as well as diagonal. There are many ways to progress beyond the traditional vertical ladder.

Courtesy of Deloitte

2) A lattice model looks at work which is more dynamic, ephemeral, and project-based. Teams are assembled on a grid, with the possibility of connecting with each other in a spontaneous manner.

3) A lattice organisation has multi-directional support, relationships and interactions. In Gore's model, this can be divided into "sponsors" and "leaders". Sponsors engage in a one-on-one relationship with the associate and mentors him or her (more like a coach) focusing on the person. Leaders focus on business objectives, take leadership of teams, develops strategy and solve problems.

Naturally, work changes significantly for the individual. With the deeper integration of work and life, coupled with the fact that work is no longer a place but a function, there will be a greater multiplicity of roles in such an organisation. There are four dimensions according to Deloitte: Pace, Workload, Location/Schedule, and Role.

Courtesy of Deloitte

These variables may change depending on one's primary role, life stage, geographic consideration, and preferred contribution pattern (eg being a professional versus a manager).

Personally, I see lots of similarities between this structure and what we intend to implement in my organisation. Calling our approach that of a hybrid-matrix organisation, we hope to find ways to make work not only more flexible, but modular with various modes of development for team members. Project groups, including spontaneously occurring innovation task forces, could also be in the cards.

Of course, managing such a structure isn't going to be easy. For example, staff appraisals may need to increasingly take a more multi-dimensional approach, with peers and other managers coming in. However, it may be the only way organisations can move forward into the future.

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