Listen, I get it, you hate the word “p r o c e d u r e”. When you only hear about “procedures”, you get chicken pox. I just wanted to let you know it is just a word.
A word is not harmful by itself.
But I know, the founding fathers of our meritocracy fought the colonial clutch of decrepit enterprise practices and proclaimed “never again!” for procedures, organizational charts, meetings, deadlines, business indicators and all sterile corporate discourse in general.
That’s great, except that some of the things enterprises adopted as management ideas are in fact normal human behavior translated in theory.
Ages of an organization
When one is a child they’re left to their own devices most of the time. They can play and dream and imagine unicorns and no one is to be expected to make rules for children doing their thing. This is how it goes for an organization too when it is incipient, in the mythical garage.
When adolescence hits, all one wants is independence. Just leave them alone. Sure you want to know what happens, and when it happens, and you worry because teens can do irreparable damage, but you walk on your toes fearing the retribution you get if you ever cross their independence.
A teen organization is that full of energy moment when the founder graduated the garage phase, has a product and some money and wants to conquer the world with nothing but a safety pin and a Junior Mint.
When one grows up, all things happen and they happen fast.
In the 20s: hurry have all the fun; in the 30s: hey don’t forget to have a family; in the 40s: check out the cash you can get for all the shit you endured. But wait, be sure to go to the gym, travel the world, sleep enough hours every night, wake up early, eat healthy, stay young, be cool.
With so many challenges all people employ helping tactics: schedules, plans, trainers, routines, personal objectives, sabaticals, four hour work weeks, antifragile techniques and so many others.
So are organizations in the growth phase in desperate need of tools and techniques to help them cope with the multitude of things that go on and are never coming back.
Then with the serenity of old age, people get free time, flexible schedules, hobbies and more reflection time assigned to them by society, by default. They are supported (those who are) by the foundation laid in the years before.
So are organizations, who got out of the growth stage and are now entrenched players, resting on the foundation laid by their history. They too should embrace flexible new ideas about work and business.
Holacracy could work better at IBM, than for Medium.
A huge enterprise has more benefits from implementing a flat organization, less reporting, less procedures, less concentration of decision power, less checks and balances at executive level, than a startup that just entered growth.
For the latter, ye olde tools of managing people and business could do a helluva good job, if infused with the fresh spirit and energy of exploited opportunity.
One of the key things people tend to miss out, when they brag about how flat their organization is, is the clustering phenomenon, which is the same thing as a top down hierarchy, but distributed in less dimensions.
If you project the pyramid in an organizational chart from the XY plane on the X dimension only, you’ll get clusters.
What this means is that, while for executive management it seems to not exist, the chain of command still exists in social norms people create autonomously.
A non-hierarchical company is a flatland.
A flatland manager feels he lives in a flat organization because he looks above and below and finds no one. She also looks to the left and to the right and sees people far away.
But a flatland worker who is in the trenches, doing the day to day work, looks to the left and to the right and sees a whole lot of people, crowding in the same spot.
They mingle and befriend each other, but they’re constantly haunted by the stressor of uncanny company: my friends are not like me.
The clusters inside flat hierarchies are attacked in many ways. Holacracy does an attempt to disperse them with artificial empty space dropped into the naturally forming clusters. But that is solely a trick.
People in flat hierarchies suffer from one plague: uncertainty.
Sure, one should hold and carry its own weight and figure out stuff, but in the growth phase, in the accelerated investment and expansive hiring phase, why would the organization waste resources on people figuring out how to organize?
When you are busy with disruption you need cohesion inside, and cohesion is affected deeply by two things: unknown identity and wandering direction.
Humans as employees constantly want to know two things:
- what they should do
- what is expected of them.
Because of this, I say the normal XY plane of hierarchy is a very good cohesion tool for initial or accelerated growth companies.
I do not expect this to be a popular opinion.
Responsibility based organigram vs role based organigram
The biggest issue an organigram has is that they’re not organically grown. Or that they are exclusively organically grown.
That means, as an organization develops, the hierarchy should be groomed constantly. It will grow by itself, but like with any other thing that grows by itself and of which we require to be useful, we need to trim, cut, bend and protect.
In my opinion, the hierarchy that grows in the organization should be one of the founder’s primary concerns, or maybe a function of the COO. This hierarchy will eventually point at the direction the company will grow in, and it will not be changeable at that point.
The natural way of development of these structures is responsibility, meaning that when a person becomes a source of truth for something, it will automatically have subordinates, no matter what we call them.
The more sources of truth one person manages and combines, the higher up the chart it will climb.
Responsibility in an organization means basically being the source of truth, not being a problem solver or the one who is fired for failure or the one who “answers” for mistakes. That is a poor understanding or responsibility.
To be a source of truth means to mediate proactively between data points and signals.
Signals are coming from: company values, company environment (market) and company apparatus (other people).
The result of this mediation is being “in the know” about what is happening at any moment. In short, responsibility is higher the more diverse the answers you are required to know are.
If one is found in a position where they are constantly required to know a conceptually restricted kind of answers, but a huge number of this type of answers, they became a linchpin. As useful as they are in the beginning, a linchpin becomes more and more of a liability, the bigger and wider the organisation gets.
There are, however, bad managers of organizational charts.
Bad managers of organizational charts are those who stack up roles on top of each other, and assign importance based on role taken.
It is a common mistake to consider everyone to have the same importance in a company: this it is simply a romanticized view of labor.
On the other hand, all roles are equal. A car will not move, even if a single wheel is missing, but it is unreal to state that the tire is as important as the computer on board.
Importance is about the hole that remains in the overall functionality of a composite system, if said part is removed.
Therefore, I believe organigrams based on roles always lead in time to rheumatic organizations, and later to sociopathic behavior of the people stuck in their roles, sociopathic behavior towards leafs and branches of the chart. This methodology should be avoided at all costs.
The informal chain of command
Organizations with informal structures are very vulnerable to catastrophic HR events. A catastrophic HR event is when one leaves the joint with the entire team following along.
The “funny” thing is that in any organization there is always an informal chain of command.
It doesn’t matter how “flat” its structure is supposed to be. I would say that:
the informal chain of command is stronger the less leadership the management is capable of
Leadership is a function of management.
There is no such thing as leaders, only managers are a real “thing”. Leaders are another name for managers who do good at the leadership part of their role.
If the leadership function of active management is weak, you will have “leaders” popping up all over your workforce, folks with informal power who will act on that power specifically because they have it.
Inside organizations the informal chain of command should always be minimal and managed, and never ignored.
So, my meritocratic friend, have I managed to horrify you by praising organization charts?
Wait until I start about Gantt charts, other awesome tools and systems that are ignored in the startup world, because they have been touched by the zombie enterprises of today.
Yet, so many working weekends, late night sessions, crises and stumbles could be avoided, if once and for all we get the fact that revolutions suck, and that instead we need to improve, not ignore, things that worked for ages.