In 2011 – a whole decade ago – I wrote my book ‘Fast, Flat, and Free’ to help business owners understand and leverage the online world for their offline business. That book is out of print because so much of the technology is obsolete. But the principles of ‘fast, flat, and free’ are just as relevant now.
In a digital world, customers, employees, and other stakeholders expect you to be fast, flat, and free:
- Digital technology replaces atoms with bits, which means our world is faster, because bits move at the speed of light, and are easier to move, copy, and share.
- Our world has become flatter because digital bypasses hierarchies, topples icons, and breaks barriers. We expect greater access and stronger connections.
- Bits are free – or almost free – so what used to cost a lot to produce is much cheaper, which creates new expectations for how we exchange money for value.
It’s easy to understand ‘fast’ and ‘free’ because we see everyday examples of technology making things faster and cheaper. But it’s not always as easy to see ‘flat’, and yet that could have the biggest impact on your organisation.
In a flatter world, we bypass gatekeepers.
Dr Nikki Stamp, one of Australia’s leading cardiothoracic surgeons, is also a lecturer, health advocate, author, and mentor to women in medicine. She has a carefully cultivated professional brand that attracts mainstream media, where she often appears as an expert. But she also has a casual and irreverent side, which appears on Instagram, Twitter, and especially in her podcast, ‘In Bad Taste’. These online platforms allow her to reach a different market directly, without having to rely on anybody’s approval.
This is an example of our flatter world, with fewer hierarchies, gatekeepers, management layers, and other barriers between you and others. It has set new expectations for how we engage with each other everywhere.
We ALL use this flatter world.
Whether we’re customers or suppliers, we regularly leverage this flatter world in our lives. For example:
- Review sites: Customers use public forums like TripAdvisor and other review sites to praise, comment on, or complain about places they visit. Employees use sites like Glassdoor to do the same for employers.
- Pooling resources: People connect with each other to arrange loans, insurance, and other services.
- Matching wants: Online platforms like Airbnb don’t own real estate, but allow somebody with a spare room to connect with somebody else who wants that room.
- Bypassing hierarchy: Fans talk directly with athletes, shareholders connect with the CEO, and even the most junior employees can pitch ideas to senior management.
- Bypassing intermediaries: People deal directly with each other without agents, brokers, and other intermediaries.
Flatten your world.
Herb Kelleher, founder of Southwest Airlines, said:
Fight hierarchy and bureaucracy as hard as you possibly can. Don’t ever let it become the master; always remember it’s the servant.
Many established organisations have spent years – sometimes decades – building layers of hierarchy, because those layers were useful in the past. But that might no longer be the case. If you don’t realise just how flat our world has become, you’re vulnerable to competitors who do.
You can’t simply throw out all your hierarchies, barriers, and layers of protection – they often provide a real benefit. But examine them all carefully, because their usefulness might have diminised – or even disappeared.
Examine everything and ask, ‘What problem is this solving?’ If you don’t have a clear, compelling answer, it might be time to remove it and flatten your world.