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Do we focus too much on org structure?

Do you ever get the feeling that maybe org structures just aren’t ever that great? Like it’s not possible to actually find one that solves for all the needs of the business?

I’m starting to think that we focus way too much on org structures and that there are other really important areas that get neglected in our structure-oriented view.

High-D vs. Low-D

Dimensionality. This is a word that has been occurring in my musings a lot recently. It seems to be that the more dimensions a problem has, the harder it is to solve.

A trivial example would be a bug that has a fix which can be solved by a single person. It’s simple to add bugs like this to a list and have an engineer rattle through them in a predictable manner. Contrast this with a bug with a fix that not only requires input from across teams, but has knock on implications for the way pricing and security is managed. This is the bug that will sit on the backlog forever.

I suspect that the challenges arise when we try to tackle a high-dimension problem with a low-dimension solution. What happens is that some dimensions are solved for and others remain latent, unaddressed, ignored.

Org structures are low-D

An org chart is literally two-dimensional. Though it’s partly a physical limitation of what we can represent on paper or a screen, it’s also a limitation of our conceptual function.

We just aren’t able to codify, manipulate or communicate high-dimension solutions.

Org charts focus on splitting the company up in to functional units that result in small enough teams for managers to manage. Being able to manage units and teams means needing to have a defined responsibility that delivers a clear package of value that can be understood and, ideally, measured.

The output of the company, however, needs to be unified, not unit-fied (lol, see what I did there?). Most work in reality crosses the boundaries of the org chart almost with no regard for it.

How we compensate

Have you seen any of the following implemented to compensate for the low-dimensionality of the org chart?

  • Matrix Management
  • Professional “Guilds” (e.g. Scrum Master Guild)
  • Temporary project-based teams
  • Mandated “cultural” behaviours

This is the moment where I could decry these efforts, but I think that would be disingenuous. As I mentioned a moment ago, we humans are pretty much stuck with low-dimensionality solutions, even though they are intrinsically flawed.

We actually do need additional elements to compensate for the limited function of the org chart, and we’ll be much more effective if we give them as much, if not more, attention.

What should we do then?

Once we recognise that we have this limitation we can be more intentional about using techniques that accept it and don’t ask it to do what it can’t.

An org chart cannot solve the whole challenge of making an org work. We should really only be asking it to help us with a small number of things. (It’s probably up to you to figure out what things your company asks it to solve.)

Using rules as well as structure

As well as being multi-dimensional and dynamic, companies are complex. That is to say, they cannot be fully understood or controlled. Complex systems more often turn out to be based on a number of simple rules more than structures.

Consider traffic. The road infrastructure is like the org chart, but the traffic rules also play a huge part in determining how well the system functions.

The best resource I have found for getting started with what these rules in an org might be is the book Six Simple Rules.

I do recommend reading the book for the best insight, but the rules are:

  1. Understand what your people do.
  2. Reinforce integrators.
  3. Increase the total quantity of power.
  4. Increase reciprocity.
  5. Extend the shadow of the future.
  6. Reward those who cooperate.

The rules are based on the premise that the key to managing complexity is the combination of autonomy and cooperation.

Morieux, Yves; Tollman, Peter; Six Simple Rules. Harvard Business Review Press.

Taking the load off the org chart

When you intentionally work on using these “rules” (or principles) to help guide behaviours then you ease the pressure heaped on the org chart to do what it cannot.

I would even go so far as to say, it doesn’t matter what your org chart is, as long as you have good rules to facilitate how people work within it.

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