The Spinning Top Model

By Jeffrey Stukuls, an EO Austin member and the chief synthesizer of Great Ideas Uphill Education.

I’ve always hated the traditional organizational chart for three reasons – 1) customers are on the bottom (come on, really?), 2) it is command and control (“stuff” flows downhill), and 3) its pyramid shape implies business will never fail.

So the obvious answer is to flip it upside down, which is better because customers are on top and its shape is more empowerment-oriented (the downhill stuff that flows hits totally different recipients).  Unfortunately, this upside-down version also doesn’t work for the simple reality that a pyramid standing on its point will fall over with a small breeze, and businesses don’t usually fail that easily.  What solution did I come up with?  Spin it.

Now I imagine the org chart more like a spinning top – anyone touching customers is on the top surface, departments are like slices of the pie (from flat top to angled bottom), and the person at the very bottom is the CEO.  The momentum of spin keeps the organization from simply falling over – it might wobble, but it stays up unless the spin slows too much or too many bad decisions cause too much imbalance.  There are so many reasons I like this model, for instance:

  • The people on “top” are customers and anyone directly “touching” customers … this just feels right to me regarding importance. Plus, it keeps me where I belong: out of the way of my team!
  • Anyone below the top has only one critical purpose: supporting those on top. A team member wants a management position? Great, more weight and support responsibility coming your way!
  • My role as leader is to make sure it spins smoothly. If I sense a wobble, I highlight it and let the team fix it.
  • The top’s momentum comes from customers interacting with the organization then spinning away (hopefully to come back again and again!). 
  • I think of the top area as revenue and the volume within the shape below as expenses (profit is when the surface area is bigger than the volume). So the shape should be large surface area and small support underneath quickly coming to a point.

How has this helped me and my company? I think it sets the right tone about who and what is really important, so it’s a core cultural issue.  I explain this model as part of new team member orientation, so they understand how important this way of thinking is to me. After really living this model, and all its implications, we became a “Top 8th Best Place to Work in Austin, TX” (per The Austin Business Journal) in under two years. 

Now, this isn’t the only thing we did around creating a great culture, but this model is core to what we did, since I always have it in my mind when interacting with team members. What I mean is that I keep reminding myself that I’m at the bottom supporting others, and I can’t “do” anything, so I have to get good at highlighting issues and asking the right questions. Then I just stay in my place … at the bottom, keeping the spin smooth and growing!

Jeffrey recently sold his share of his Internet retail company,, Inc. He is now starting a new venture focused on improving results through key conceptual insights.  The Spinning Top Model is a forthcoming book as part of that venture.

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