Upside-Down Organizations

Powerful modeling or cynical gimmick?


An organization I know well uses a simple and powerful idea to make the point that its clients come first: an inverted organization chart. That’s right, clients and client-facing staff at the top, CEO at the bottom.

At first glance, this may not seem like a big deal. More like a gimmick or technique. But think about it. 

It changes everything.

Front-line staff really appear on the front line. Managers are depicted doing what they ought to be doing: supporting those who are closer than they are to the productive activities of the enterprise.

Why don’t more organizations do this? They may talk (a lot) about how customers come first and employees are their greatest asset, but they provide little real evidence of this alleged commitment.

In order for this to work, the words and deeds of leadership need to line up with what’s implied by the pictogram. This can be hard for people weaned on the idea that individual success is measured by how far and fast you move up in the organization.

Still, it shouldn’t be difficult to swap that metaphor for the one that says the more senior people carry the heavier burden.

One of the more challenging aspects of operating like this is what it means for how information is treated: information has to flow much more freely and transparently than is the norm in most places I know. After all, if front line employees are the most important ones in the organization, it stands to reason that they need to know everything about how the business is running.

Figuring out how to get comfortable with this level of transparency and then doing it consistently and well is perhaps the single characteristic that distinguishes organizations that successfully turn themselves upside-down from those that cynically adopt it as a gimmick.