Organizations are conservative

You’ve got all these people. So you organize them, right?

That was really useful back when communications around the office moved at the pace of a handwritten note or a typed carbon copy, coupled with an occasional person-to-person telephone call.

Organizations are a way to institutionalize a specific order. When they correspond to what needs to be done — and how it ought to be done — they are quite effective.

It’s why Jon Husband talks about his notion of Wirearchy (or Organization for this century) as a coupling of hierarchy and peer-to-peer relationships. Hierarchy remains to conserve some order; peer-to-peer opens up possibilities in a less ordered way.

What that also suggests is that the temptation to tie everyone down into an organizational structure — Person X is a member of Department A, which reports up through P — is highly inappropriate to give into for some kinds of work.

Some groups should be self-organizing. Work in the Cynefin framework‘s domain of complicated order is already conserving enough (through the agreement of experts); adding additional power via hierarchical relationships and structure may imbalance the enterprise. Would it be better to think differently about a classic team of experts — say enterprise architects — and scatter throughout the enterprise but have them meet to accomplish architectural results rather than that an architecture group be formed?

Husband’s Wirearchy suggests that would be true. Good practice doesn’t need to be tied to organizational structure.

It’s hard for managers brought up in a world where every position has a position description that in turn becomes the framework for a performance evaluation, and every employee fits into a neat little budget centre and organizational box, to envision seas of loosely-coupled staff forming into teams, carrying things out, them dissolving back into a pool again.

But why not? Isn’t this how Hollywood and its peers make movies and television shows? You’re a camera person, you’re hired to be on this production, you show up and give your best contribution under direction and with ideas from peers, then off you go maybe never again to work with that cluster of people.

The typical IT organization today in a multi-billion dollar corporation has several hundred project-oriented people working for it — every one of which is unavailable to most projects because of organizational structure. Think about that, and wonder if perhaps some of our problems in translating change into productivity stem from such nonsense.

Instead of lock-step structure (manager = budget centre + headcount + purpose) you might have money and people flowing toward purposes to be achieved, then coalescing in new forms.

Now if your goal is to get payroll out, or pay bills, or process incoming monies, you probably still want a high and simple order — the sort of thing the classic hierarchical organization provides.

But if your goal is to get things done in a changing world, perhaps you need something different. Something that looks less like the past thinking, and more like the future.

Before, you know, someone beats you to it, and has your enterprise for lunch.


About passionateobserver

I am a passionate observer of our society, the economy, and politics. Mostly I don't like much of what I see, so I write as a concerned citizen. To the fray, I bring a background in the philosophy of history, a lifetime's reading, a work history in information technology management, consulting and education.
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