What I talk about when I talk about structure

In many of the organisation design meetings that I attend where a client has an issue they want to address, their request is for a re-structure.  Closer questioning reveals that by ‘re-structure’ they actually mean they want a differently arranged traditional organisation chart.  They are of the view that, once people are in the configuration shown on the chart, a revised chart will solve the issue and are surprised when I ask questions about work flows, value streams, customer journeys and so on.  There is almost no recognition that ‘structure’ and ‘re-structure’ mean more than a different organisation chart.

Asking people what information an organisation chart gives us, and what information it doesn’t give us alerts them to the possibility that the information it doesn’t give us could well be useful in thinking how to achieve the re-structure purpose (assuming we are clear on  what that is) but that recognition doesn’t translate into ‘let’s look at that too’.  Providing the article ’10 principles for organisation design’,  where principle 3 is ‘Fix the structure last, not first’,  is given polite nods before people return to drawing boxes and lines.

What I talk about when I talk about structures is not organisation charts.   I am not against org charts (see my 2011 blog) and they are usually one of the outputs of design work. But organisation design charts do not represent the totality of organisational ‘structure’.

The Cambridge Dictionary defines structure as:  the way in which the parts of a system or object are arranged or organized, or a system arranged in this way, giving some examples:

  • the grammatical structure of a sentence
  • The structure of this protein is particularly complex.
  • They have a very old-fashioned management
  • Some people like the sense of structure that a military lifestyle imposes

You can see from the examples that ‘structure’ comes in many forms.  Over the years my views on what I mean by structure has developed.  My 2012 blog on the topic almost does equate ‘structure’ with ‘chart’ (but not with ‘design’).

But now,  I think of structure is a way that is much more akin to Richard Karash’s view.  In his blog  ‘How to see structure’ he discusses structure in the way I now think of it.   He says, ‘Structure is the network of relationships that creates behavior. The essence of structure is not in the things themselves but in the relationships of things. By its very nature, structure is difficult to see … much of what we think of as structure is often hidden. We can witness traffic accidents, for example, but it’s harder to observe the underlying structure that causes them.’

Karash explains the traffic accident at three levels:  the events level, the patterns and trends level, and the structural level.  As he points out, these levels are interdependent.  The structural elements – road layouts, traffic flow regulators, road surface design and so on interact along with non-structural elements to shape driver behaviour.   (I don’t agree that structure ‘creates’ behaviour, but I do think it shapes and directs it).

The various elements of  ‘structure’ that comprise the structural building blocks of ‘design’ include:

  • Hierarchies, layers and spans, with stated decision and authority levels
  • Lateral linkages and interdependencies
  • Work process, flows and business capabilities
  • Organisational performance management and governance systems
  • Individual performance management systems, pay and reward mechanisms, job design, career paths.
  • Templates, frameworks, models and methodologies
  • Information and communication flows
  • Policies, procedures and standards

So, when I talk about structure, I talk about those things, and these are the things I consider in the organisational design work.  This more comprehensive view of ‘structure’ is sometimes problematic if I don’t explain and explore it carefully with clients and stakeholders, because typically they do equate – and use interchangeably – ‘structure’ and ‘chart’ and also refer to the chart as the organisation’s ‘design’.    (The ’10 Principles for Organisation Design, mentioned earlier, also equates structure with chart, but not design).

Maybe I’m out on a limb taking a more comprehensive view because when I Googled ‘organisation structure’ and looked at the images from this they were pretty much all of organisation charts.   But I’m simultaneously reading blogs and articles telling us that the organisation chart is dead.   See for example The Org Chart is Dead,  and The End of the Org Chart and To Sir, With Love – Compliance and the End of the Org Chart and It’s Time to Kill the Org Chart

There are many organisations, particularly those moving towards ‘structures that enable self-organizing teams to organize and collaborate through internal networks’, that do not have an organisation chart of the type shown when you Google organisation charts/structures – but they do have many of the other structural elements on my list above.

Corporate Rebels reports that these chartless organisations ‘have evolved themselves from structures that look like static slow-moving pyramids to something that looks more like a flexible and fast-moving swarm of start-ups. We have witnessed them in all kinds of shapes and sizes, all called slightly different. Spotify talks about squads and tribes. Buurtzorg about self-governing teams. Stanley McCrystal about a team of teams. Finext and Incentro about cells. And FAVI calls them mini-factories.’  Look too at the article on Haier in November/December 2018 HBR

If we only equate ‘structure’ with traditional types of ‘org chart’ we lose sight of the many other, possibly better, ways of organising work and workers.   No organisation chart does not mean no structures.   And having an organisation chart requires acknowledgement that it represents only one structural element and one that neither defines nor represents the design of the organisation.

What do you talk about when you talk about structures?  Let me know.


(I got the title from a book by Haruki Murakami ‘What I talk about when I talk about running’)

Image: New York and Erie Railroad organisation chart from 1855 © Geography & Maps/Library of Congress

One thought on “What I talk about when I talk about structure”

  1. Great article!

    Samsung Electronics has been on the same path since 2009, but indeed very few organizations realize what true organizational design is.

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