Five myths of organisation design

A couple of weeks ago I was asked if I would do a webinar on organisation design. I thought the organisers would suggest a topic but they asked me to.  I offered three possibilities, ‘New Developments in Organisation Design?’ or ‘The need for continuous organisation design’ or ‘5 myths of organisation design’.  They picked the 5 myths.  So, I started on that,  writing down five myths:

  1. Design is about the organisation chart
  2. Leaders are in the best position to decide the design of an organisation
  3. Organisation design is an intermittent process
  4. Redesigning an organisation will solve its problems
  5. There’s a right way to do organisation design

Looking at my list, I remembered the article I’d written in 2006 when things were different and dredged it out of my files.  (The Ten Myths of Organization Design. It was published in Issue 7, March 2006, Developing HR Strategy – a journal that doesn’t seem to exist now).   Oh, I found things weren’t different after all.  The 10 myths I wrote about then are below.

  1. Organization design is only about changing structures*
  2. Organizations can be designed to last
  3. Organization design and change management are different
  4. Organization design work spawns a cottage industry of its own (I noted, in the article, that this should be a myth but isn’t really as it usually does!)
  5. A new design behaves predictably
  6. People resist change brought about by organization design work
  7. Organization designs work best when mandated by leaders*
  8. Organization design is a start-over process*
  9. Organization design is a quick fix for a business problem*
  10. Organization design is best left to external consultants

The asterisks in the 2006 list indicate those which are also on the 2019 list. The only one that’s new on the 2019 list that isn’t on the 2006 list is ‘There’s a right way to do organisation design’. 

I wondered why my list of organisation design myths hasn’t changed in thirteen years?  We now have design thinking, agile, social media, AI, automation of work processes,  organisational network analysis, and hosts of other technologies that are changing both the way we work and the way we think about work.  (See, for example the RSA Report ‘The Four Futures of Work’)  Some commentators propose the end of organisation charts.

To answer the question ‘why no change in the myth list?’ I got curious about the word ‘myth’  In my using the word I’ve taken one definition that it is ‘a commonly believed but false idea’.  But there is another definition that it is ‘an ancient story or set of stories, especially explaining the early history of a group of people or about natural events and facts’.   In this definition ‘Myth serves to interpret the whole of human experience and that interpretation can be true or fictitious, valuable or insubstantial, quite apart from its historical veracity.’

In his book Myth: a very short introduction Robert Segal proposes that ‘myth accomplishes something significant for adherents’.  He takes issue with ‘today’s parlance’ in which ‘myth is false.  Myth is mere myth.’  And in his blog on the topic ‘For to call even a conspicuously false story or belief a mere myth is to miss the power that that story or belief holds for those who accept it. The difficulty in persuading anyone to give up an obviously false myth attests to its allure.’   Elsewhere, he notes that ‘Myths have also shaped societies and ideologies over the years, from nationalism to fascism, and helped forge the careers of infamous politicians.’

In a another piece he makes the point that ‘Myth as a false story or belief is not objectionable because myth is thereby false. For me, a myth can as readily be false as be true. (But then it can as readily be true as be false.) The falsity or truth of myth is secondary. What is primary is the need that the story originates and functions to serve’.

He suggests asking three categories of questions about myths:

  • Those of origin – why and how myth arises
  • Those of function – why and how the myth persists.
  • Those of need – what need does the myth fulfil and what need makes it last by continuing to fulfil

If we take the view that the examples I give are myths that are false then asking questions around how they originated, why they persist, and what need they fulfil may take us towards less of a derogatory view of those who perpetuate, or work, the myth and more of an understanding of why they do and why it matters to them and how power of the myths help shape the way we approach organisation design.

Take, as an example, the myth that organisation design is about the organisation chart (aka ‘structure’) – which I think is false.  But in my experience, it is clear that many people believe it to be true.  Why?  Possibly because, an organisation chart serves several purposes.  It is a visual representation of hierarchy, reporting lines, who reports to who, number of jobs, teams, employees (not FTE), names of jobs, teams, core business – how work is sectioned, job vacancies, etc.  The myth arises from thinking that the formal elements that can be expressed on a chart are the organisation.

Why and how this myth persists could be to do with attitudes and beliefs around formal relationships.  In a hierarchical organisation, for example it may be a commonly held view that re-allocating positional power enables a ‘better’ person to take on a role (or sidelines a poor performer).  Or it could be, as Margaret Heffernan suggests, that an organisation chart is a powerful symbol of aspiration.  She says that, ‘For decades, managers imagined that corporate ladders were motivating and that dreams of climbing them would drive superior performance’.   Or it could be that there’s a belief that changing the chart is a quick and simple way to fix organisational issues.

Turning to the question of what need does the myth fulfil and what need makes it last by continuing to fulfil?  Well, although Andrew Hill notes in his article It’s time to kill the org chart,  some believe ‘They are a vital tool, providing information on the role and identity of team members. They supply valuable context.’ He says that one HR Director ‘said the org chart was her company’s best-read online document.’  Hill goes on to say that ‘while shredding the org chart may be a satisfying way of triggering such [transformational] change, it could make everything worse if it deprives workers of information about who does what. Businesses need some structure to be able to grow — and sooner or later someone will want to see what that structure looks like.’   So, the organisation chart fulfils a need for some information (but, in my view, it is still not the ‘design’ of the organisation).

Another need that it may fulfil – for those who believe that complex problems have simple answers is that it’s much easier to reconfigure an org chart – back of envelope will do – than take, say, a systems or complexity approach to organisation design.

What’s your view of organisation design myths – how they originate, why they persist and what need they fufil?  Let me know.

Image:  Left brain v right brain myth

3 thoughts on “Five myths of organisation design”

  1. Very thought provoking. In one sense organisation charts are simply a way of packaging up clusters of similar activity into manageable clumps. They are essentially simplifiers. But the problems in many organisations don’t tend to arise and lie in the manageable clumps but in the interfaces and relationships between them – typically the ‘grey areas’. Poor organisational redesign disrupts known grey areas where people may have at least reached a working accommodation, and replaces them with unclear, greyer areas which make it more difficult to resolve problems swiftly. Better approaches recognise the impossibility of drawing perfect boundaries and devote time to forming and sustaining the networks and relationships that bridge the gaps, wherever the gaps lie.

  2. Very interesting!

    I wonder whether the org chart endures because it is visual, and for many of us this is a key way of taking in information.

    Have we done a good enough job of finding alternative visual org design representation to wean people off the org chart?

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