Structures: stop and think

The Rollo May quote came to mind this week: "Human freedom involves our capacity to pause between the stimulus and response and, in that pause, to choose the one response toward which we wish to throw our weight. The capacity to create ourselves, based upon this freedom, is inseparable from consciousness or self-awareness. (in The Courage to Create) .

I thought of it because I was on several telephone conference calls where there was little leadership agreement behind the 'one response toward which to throw our weight'. Each leader felt the stimulus and was irritated by having to pause and choose, rather than just take the individual knee-jerk reaction he/she wanted to but when the pause situation was engineered the differences between the team members became evident. With this came the realization that the team had to stop, think, decide more in concert than individually.

When I looked at a report on Project Oxygen, Google's approach to determining how to make more successful managers that someone sent me during the week I noticed that this too had the suggestion of stopping to pause between stimulus and response and also to align an individual's thinking with the wider interests of the organization:

"The traps [of unsuccessful management] can show up in areas like hiring. Managers often want to hire people who seem just like them. So Google compiles elaborate dossiers on candidates from the interview process, and hiring decisions are made by a group. "We do everything to minimize the authority and power of the manager in making a hiring decision," Mr. Bock [VP People Operations] explains.

A person with an opening on her team, for instance, may have short-term needs that aren't aligned with the company's long-term interests. "The metaphor is, if you need an administrative assistant, you're going to be really picky the first week, and at six months, you're going to take anyone you can get," Mr. Bock says. "

So what is it that prevents leaders and managers a) stopping to think, and b) acting more in the interests of the organization than in self-interest? The discussion had originally arisen when I was facilitating an organization design program early in the week. Participants wanted to know why managers had a tendency to hand them (the OD consultant) a structure (organization) chart and say "I want my organization to have this structure instead of the current one, make it happen and quickly."

In this particular recurring case it's because managers don't necessarily know that different structures have different capabilities, and different pro and cons. For example, a network structure is good for a volatile environment, while a functional structure is good for a stable environment. Additionally when they think about structure they are generally thinking about 'their' organization and not the interrelationships their departments have with other parts of the organization and with external entities. To be effective the structural choices made in one part of the organization must recognize the consequences both in that part and also in other parts of the wider system.

I've found that managers can be encouraged to pause between stimulus (need to change the structure) and response (it must look like this) if you ask them a series of questions related to the following points:

1. The structure must demonstratively deliver the strategic goals of the organisation
– How does the structure enable the required combination of products, services and customer relationships to be delivered?
– How does the structure minimise costs?
– How does the structure enable the organisation to create added value (e.g. combinations) ?
2. Dept accountabilities must be clear
– Each element has clearly articulated responsibilities, accountabilities and performance measures
– Are there strategic deliverables which do not have a clear owner?
– Where there is shared ownership for a strategic deliverable, how will the structure maximise coordination?
3. Structures should be as flat as possible
– Structures are designed to a minimum number of organisation levels, e.g. how can the number of layers be reduced and what would be the impact?
– Spans of control guidelines
4. Avoid unnecessary duplication
– Do other parts of the company perform this service? Could it be combined?
– Activities are located together to create economies of scale and centres of expertise
– Expertise and resource is located where it has optimal impact
– How much duplication do customers (external or internal) experience?
– Are activities that most need to be coordinated located together?
5 Structures should be flexible and responsive to change
– Structures are designed to cope with workload fluctuations and variations in customer demand
– Consideration of contract staff to cope with peaks
– In what ways can the structure support predicted future growth and innovation?
6. Structure demonstrates appropriate governance and risk standards
– The organisation complies with the regulatory and financial governance framework within which it operates
– Are there clearly documented risk and governance accountabilities?
– How fast can issues be escalated?
7. Structures will support the development of key capabilities
– The business critical career paths are clearly visible within the structure
– How are the capability gaps created by the new structures to be resolved (build/buy)?
8. Organisation design process should be consistent between departments
– Consider roles not people

Let me know if you are able to change a manager's immediate response to structure change by encouraging him/her to pause to consider the choices he/she is making and the consequences of those choices by facilitating a discussion around these points. Note that they are all explained further in my book. Organization Design: creating high performing and adaptable enterprises. In that book you'll also find information about the differences between the various types of organization structures.

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