The path to upward mobility has changed over the past few years. For decades, the way to ‘climb the ladder’ happened in a few ways. Obviously being born into a family-owned business established a surefire guarantee. Other paths were a college degree, marriage, or hard work and promotions.

Our mental models for how we comprehend the world of business matter. They shape how we think and what is possible. However, what many believe is a fundamental core to building successful organizations has been evaporating over the last couple decades. The vertical corporate ladder is becoming an artifact, as the world and how we work continues to evolve.

The vertical corporate ladder is becoming an artifact.

Recently I obtained a book, “The Corporate Lattice: Achieving High Performance in the Changing World of Work,” by Cathy Benko and Molly Anderson. Benko and Anderson outlined the changing world of work and introduced what they called the corporate lattice which, even a few years ago, was becoming the new corporate ladder.

Unlike the linear ladder, the multi-dimensional lattice is more adaptive and, as such, seems to be a better fit with the changing workplace. The lattice replaces the vertical, one-directional model with one that can be described as a “zig zag” or multi-directional career path. The lattice engenders the flow of ideas along horizontal, vertical, and diagonal paths, which enables more collaborative ways to structure work, build careers, and foster participation.

The workplace is not what it used to be. Organizations are flatter and leaner. The current workforce is more diverse than ever. Also, technological advances and economic trends mean work can be and is increasingly virtual, globally dispersed, and team based.

While technology is a critical enabler, management practices, diversity, and culture are equally important. The enlightened (lattice) organizations support rewarding professional experiences, providing better career-life fit for employees, and results in greater agility. During my career I had the advantage of working for a company who provided such opportunities, so I had the chance to see this process work. The concept applies in multiple ways:

  1. Building careers. Keeping pace with the rapid rate of change and the skills needed to succeed requires agility, and continual focus on growth. Flatter organizations provide fewer options for developing people “up” the ladder to ensure they are capable of replacing outgoing staff. Lattice organizations broaden career paths multi-directionally, enhancing development opportunities and flexibility. This helps employees keep their skills relevant in a fast-changing marketplace – a key to job security – and provides expanded career options.
  2. Performing work. Technology is enabling new possibilities. Work is transforming from a place where we go, to something we do in a dynamic, increasingly virtual workplace. Modular job and process designs, globalization, virtualization, and team-based project work, among other workplace changes, leverage technologies in innovative ways. The benefit of virtual work include employee retention, shorter cycle times, improved business continuity, and, likely, a “greener” environment.
  3. Participation. Lattice organizations, unfettered from a top-down hierarchy, tend to function as networks. They openly and freely share information, create communities, and provide more collaborative and meaningful options for employees to contribute -- regardless of their organizational level. These new ways of fostering participation address the rise of non-routine and project-based work, which require greater collaboration. Lattice organizations find ways of working across the invisible borders of geography, hierarchy, and function.

The shift from the vertical ladder to the lattice has been underway for some time. With the flattening of organizations, opportunities are not as plentiful for people to keep moving upward. Companies are utilizing opportunities for people to m the organization. While it may not necessarily be immediately financially rewarding, employees, and not just those viewed as high potential, gain experience and position themselves to move up when the opportunity presents itself.

There seems to be a clear upside in embracing this transformation and moving beyond the older linear approaches. It is happening in many industries despite resistance.

We need to start thinking “zig zag,” not straight up. Organizations need to understand the benefits. It can improve productivity, efficiency, and innovation. It can build careers, and develop, retain, and engage appropriate talent.

For employees it provides the opportunity to build their resumes and broaden their base. Taking sideways (“zig zag”) positions provides opportunities to learn other parts of the business and opens doors which may not have been available otherwise. The path to success is not always on a straight line.