LCM Student Association logo

Like it or not, you are a negotiator

"The board is going flat"

Opportunities and pitfalls of a flat structure

by Ewout Goudsmedt

The LCM Student Association is one of the youngest student organizations in the university life of Leuven. It started off as a small group of students who wanted to learn more about the art of negotiation, without the need for any further formalities. Hard work and a clear goal: to write a syllabus and to offer top-quality interactive workshops.

Throughout the past four years, we have steadily developed that project and realized the ambition. As we are small in size, we had to choose our battles and stick to our core business. This led, step by step, to a profound and thoroughly elaborated Negotiation Track: the institutionalized cornerstone of our organization. Offering hands-on workshops in order to deliver bright students who have mastered an advanced set of skills in negotiation techniques and have a keen eye for leadership.

The organizational part of the LCM Student Association has always been fluid and ever-evolving. The founders have managed to spread the enthusiasm; the students they attracted in the following years stayed a little longer to make a contribution as a board member. Peer-to-peer, they saw things that could be improved and they did so: opportunities were grasped, ambitions were fulfilled, and the organization thrived. This vibe in our association resembles a perpetuum mobile: never-ending energy. The combination of daily experience and profound research and consulting, resulted in the most efficient and progressive innovations.

This next chapter, about the idea of a ‘flat structure’ itself, fits perfectly into the evolution as mentioned above, because we did have a president in the past. She or he was the one who ‘led’ our organization and conducted our meetings. Her or his full-time job, however, was more than often reduced to only firefighting.

The biggest fires? Deadlines, proofreading, and making sure every aspect was covered. It was certainly a frequent occurrence that a specific task fell between the remit of two directors. There were no rules other than to turn to the president in those cases. It is an understatement to say that our presidents have dragged our association through fires more than once. On the other hand, we can also imagine that as a student you do not take up extra-curricular responsibility only for reasons of mere firefighting.

That is where the flat structure came into our minds. As the attentive reader will have noted in our Newsletter, none of our members is appointed as ‘President’ or anything similar. We have managed to eliminate this task by conducting a bottom-up approach of taking responsibility (literally). We take away the firefighter and we fully count on the sense of responsibility of our directors. In this way, we have got rid of our yearly subscription to compulsory micromanaging.

“Hmmm, still a dangerous and risky venture”, you probably think. It would be indeed, if we had not yet done our research and consulting, and had not prepared this to the fullest extent. We set ourselves a clear framework for (1) what we do, (2) what we want to do, and (3) what we are not going to do. We prepared a huge document of all the tasks included within each domain of responsibility, and where and when a link to another director should be made. In this way, we also speeded up communications.

The document changed almost daily, became longer and longer by troubleshooting, and by sleeping on it. It took us months to work things out, and it will probably never be finished. One should not underestimate the importance of the time-consuming task of writing out all details on the decisions discussed.

Our board meetings are conducted according to a method of passing along the internal presidency each month. In this way, all directors are given the opportunity to learn what it can mean to lead, to conduct meetings, and to be the ‘last man standing.’ This principle has no consequences for the outer world, for there are clear points of contact for everyone.

Lastly, we have also implemented an institutionalized method of feedback. As we meet twice a month, we ensure that every board member fully reports on her or his projects. Furthermore, there is a set order in our agenda that has to be followed before we get to the topics of the meeting itself: a focused way to double-check if this new organizational structure still works. In addition, there is a self-check for the board as a whole, to reassure that we are covering everything. After a year, when the next board transition will take place, a full reflection will be made, and advice for the new board will be given.

So being aware of the risks is only the first step. This is no guarantee that the unexpected will not occur. We are lucky to have this group of friends and this organization to try out new things in a safe space. With our eyes on the future, remedies in one hand, and alternatives in the other, this board stands prepared, and steps eagerly into the fifth working year of the LCM Student Association.