I've recently had the opportunity to speak to MBA students at the University of British Columbia and at Simon Fraser University about Habanero's organizational structure and how after fifteen years of evolving it I think we're a good example of an alternative to the hierarchical organizational structures almost everyone is accustomed to. Millennials tend to aspire to get more out of work than moving up a corporate ladder and it was clear from the feedback I received that the business students I talked to were very interested in hearing about how a non-hierarchical structure can work in practice. Here's a little of what I discussed in my presentations.

Habanero is the consummate project-based organization. Almost everything we do, we do as a project. Back when Habanero was a two person company we had no choice but to collaborate and be interdependent. We seemed to make a somewhat unconscious choice as we moved ahead to focus on a team/wolf pack sort of approach. We got clear pretty quick as we started to grow that this was a source of strength for our company and, in retrospect, we were learning that we could build teams where the whole was greater than the sum of its parts. That meant we could punch way above our weight class in terms of the projects we could do and clients we could attract.

As we grew, managing this interdependent, team-oriented company started to grow in complexity. Communications, knowledge sharing and-most of all-personal connection seemed to be critical ingredients that were put under strain with growth. We started to focus on performance management, team performance and clarity of accountabilities. At that point, we were fully and consciously committed to being a lattice organization.

Hierarchical organizations are what we are all used to. From organized religion to the military to the corporate world, most of the organizations we know are built on a top down authority structure that can be neatly summarized by a classic org chart. They have been around forever and really started to take form in the industrial revolution when it was important to maximize the productivity of the factory worker. From my perspective, it's based on the idea that processes can be best implemented and controlled by isolating people in well-defined roles. The more you can control about exactly what each person does, the higher your productivity. It takes a lot of work to make hierarchies humanistic!

The lattice is something pretty different. It's not defined by a hierarchical ladder. People, ideas and information flow in any direction based on need. It's messy, complicated and beautiful, just like human beings.

There are a huge number of ingredients that go into supporting this idea of a lattice organization in Habanero. However, there are three that really stand out.

  1. You have to be purpose driven. It has to be authentic and mean something important to the whole company (and hopefully your customers too!) The more we push autonomy, the more we need to support people with the context provided by Habanero's purpose.
  2. You have to be able to build meaningful custom career paths. We focus on a strengths-based approach, which is powerful, but you have to be willing as a company to slice and dice roles to find the sweet spots between what's best for the company and what's best for each career. You have to remove traditional markers of career ladders to make the custom career path idea authentic. For example, we have a real focus on putting people in leadership roles because they are the best leader, not because they've been around the longest or they are the strongest person in that group (i.e. the best developer does not become the leader of the developers). We also work hard to weed out and remove silos, whether they are structural or cultural to make sure we don't inadvertently create barriers to career movement within Habanero.
  3. You have to let teams flourish. We think that the ability to build high performance teams is an organizational capability that we have to continually work on. Everyone in Habanero belongs to many virtual teams, some that last a long time and some that are focused on short-term tasks. These teams need to have the same interdependent structure with clarity of accountabilities and purpose that Habanero needs as a whole. One example is our Operations Team that consists of a set of interdependent roles devised to reflect the tensions that are natural in our business.

I believe Habanero's lattice structure is a key element that drives employee engagement and is integral to our overall success as a company. A lattice organization is not without its challenges and as our population grows, and we contemplate expanding into new regions, maintaining our lattice structure will take work. Having the opportunity to explore the theory and practice of our approach with a group of smart, engaged business students really helped gel some of our thinking. It also provided confirmation that a great deal of the best talent out there is very keen on building their careers in lattice type environments like ours.

I'm always happy to discuss Habanero's organizational structure and where we still want to go with it. Please leave a comment and let me know what you think.