I fucking hate organization charts

As I wrote in an earlier post, the most significant impediment to deliverIng great experiences is not design or execution or planning, but bureaucratic organizations whose values are anathema to human engagement. And one of my biggest frustrations is the assumption that because organizations operate this way now, they most always have and always will do so.

In fact, the tools and processes that organizations use were created to solve specific problems of their time. One such tool was the organization chart, created in modern business by Daniel C. McCallum to help manage the Erie railroad line, mostly around communication and coordination (to prevent accidents which were becoming prevalent). As businesses grew, they adopted hierarchical organization structures, the better to execute on the command-and-control necessary for mass manufacturing. And the org chart emerged as the tool for visualizing this organizational structure.

IBM/Tabulating Machine Co. organization chart
from mwichary

The problem with the org chart is that it seems to have affected how people are able to think of organizational structure, because even today, organizations essentially resemble those of 100 years ago. It’s as if people were drawing org charts for so long, they just thought that represented the natural structure of the organization. Org chart software assumes such hierarchy. People mistook the map for the territory, and these diagrams became reified in practice.

The reason I fucking hate organization charts is because they are emblematic of how broken standard business practice is. Command-and-control hierarchies are appropriate for an Industrial Age mindset that favors control in order to achieve consistency, efficiency, and quantifiability. That was fine because the offerings being produced were relatively simple. Once you bring CPUs, software, and networking into such a system, the offerings become mindbogglingly complex. Org charts diagram how to take a problem and break it down into a set of components. This kind of specialization and piecemealing that suited the Industrial Age is exactly wrong for Connected Age business.

Departmental silos are no longer practical, because solutions necessarily have to cross functions. I’ve worked with numerous companies who claim to get this, who talk about the need for “cross-channel” approaches, who want to “cross-sell”. However, these companies still maintain organizational silos, where the people at the top of these silos are still rewarded for their silo’s performance (regardless of how it effects the rest of the organization), and this means that coordination across silos is discouraged. It’s like we’re helpless to overcome this.

Org charts are so good at depicting bureaucracy, where each box is like a drawer in the larger “bureau”, that they’ve become part of the operating system of companies. In turn, they drive things like job titles (and the attendant responsibilities), pay grades, authority, and people’s relationships to others within and outside the corporation. As such, people are defined not by who they are, or their skills, but by their box on the chart. Sadly, this means that when companies face problems, among their go-to solutions are a “re-org.” And what this ends up looking like is simple a redrawing of an org chart. Processes, mindsets, and values don’t change. Just who reports to whom. What percentage of re-orgs are successful? What do they actually accomplish?

Another thing I hate, related to org charts, are job titles. Job titles are associated with a set of qualifications and responsibilities, with the idea that anyone who has that job title can do the same activities. Basically, people are made as interchangeable as the parts of a machine. But, we know that just because two people have the same title, they are not identical. We know that job titles do not describe the extent of a person’s responsibilities. I watch a lot of basketball. Basketball teams have “job titles” — point guard, shooting guard, small forward, power forward, and center. But any fan knows that folks with the same title are far from identical, and that the secret to success is the chemistry that emerges from the combination of the right set of individuals. We need to apply this mindset within our companies.

If we’re going to get away from the bureaucratic thinking that defined the Industrial Age, we need to set aside outmoded tools that were created for wholly different needs than what we have now. We need to stop assuming that the way we were taught is the way it always was (and always should be) done, and we need to come up with new models and approaches to address our current reality. The org chart is a graphic icon of a retrograde mentality; I urge you to question, if not destroy, them every chance you get.

Org Charts
from PaDumBumPsh

8 thoughts on “I fucking hate organization charts

  1. “However, these companies still maintain organizational silos, where the people at the top of these silos are still rewarded for their silo’s performance (regardless of how it effects the rest of the organization), and this means that coordination across silos is discouraged. It’s like we’re helpless to overcome this.”

    You’re assuming that the primary goal of a corporate organization is to produce things for the benefit of people outside the company (ie. the customers). That’s not obvious at all.

    An equally persuasive case can be made that the goal of a corporate organization is to preserve itself. To do that, you need some basic tools of accountability and measurability so you can figure out which parts work and which parts are broken. And you need personnel to be specialized enough so that they can be swapped out as needed.

    Organizing a company around “cross-channel approaches” or whatever basically means having no organization. Success or failure isn’t traceable to anyone in particular. It also dilutes employee incentives — if you can’t tell what effect you’re having on the organization, how do you know whether to be proud or disappointed in your performance?

    It also means employing smart generalists instead of mediocre specialists. Which type of employee do you think is easier to find?

  2. It reminds to using folders vs tags to organize data.

    Folders seem nice because they offer a rigid, logical structure; the problem is that items can belong in many different folders based on context. This is why tags are so much more flexible for organizing data, but you just need to be willing to let go of that illusion of a perfect hierarchy.

  3. Can you elaborate on this? For example, how would Adaptive Path look and function without titles, without hierarchy, without some measure of defined, understood roles? You’re 40+ people now? How would the company function this way vs. when it was 6-7 people?

    All of this sounds good on paper, but I don’t believe it plays out in reality, particularly the larger the organization becomes.

  4. Peter,
    Great post! This subject is near and dear to my heart.

    Doing without titles isn’t hard. You switch to a situational model where leadership and other roles are handled by the people who are available and best suited for the task. You might lead one project and do UX on the next.

    Keep the organization as flat as possible, push decisions out to the edge, take chances.

  5. Me, too. I think the key differentiator between industrial age and now is the flow of information. Now it flow everywhere and decisions can be made in flux. The key is to come up with a new way to determine when and how decisions will be made, including how mico-reorgs (new team formation) will happen to meet which customer’s needs.

    If you have flexible rules with a flexible, intelligent swarm, you’ll be able to achieve great things. The hard part is determining the rules for creating new rules for organizing and delivering. How to prioritize resources and opportunities. Not easy.

  6. Vibrant idea by @RobJones!

    JobTags instead of JobTitles
    It relates people to the project teams they work in and processes they work on… Subtle clusters of tags will identify who’s championing the work being done.

  7. Nice post. One company that has successfully eliminated the org chart is W. L. Gore & Assoc. by employing Dunbar’s rule of 150. There is also the rise of Agile models starting to break down silos in software organizations. I think it is just a matter of time before we start to see these rigid structure corporations lose market share as they struggle to adapt to market changes. A book called “Pull” just came out recently that looks at the shifting paradigm from closed knowledge stocks to open knowledge flows and the organizational changes required to survive in such a world.

  8. And the tags would be competencies and skills.

    To draw from the allusion to a basketball team, if a play goes awry (a “busted play” is what we call that in the U.S.), putting the guard where the forward should be and the forward where the guard should be, what do you do?

    You improvise based on the abilities of the people in those roles and the job you have to get done in that possession.

    If you need two points and the guard is open and can shoot, you get her the ball. (Yes, women play basketball, too.)

    Or if the opponent’s center is down to his last foul and you need to get him to foul out and your forward can protect the ball and is in position to drive to the hoop, you get him the ball.

    When you cross-train as a basketball team, it’s harder for an opponent to get your players into situations they can’t handle. So your team becomes a greater threat on offense and a more formidable obstacle on defense.

    In business, when you let people use all their talents, and let them take different roles on different projects according to their abilities and whatever it is you need at that time, your business can benefit in many ways.

    More people will be better able to fill in for a colleague who is on vacation or out sick.

    When a top performer leaves the company, you will be more likely to have a number of people in house who can step up and fill that role.

    Even your top performers will have an opportunity to learn and grow. For example, if your best UX person has to lead a project and let someone else focus on the UX, then they’ll have a chance to learn more about what the project lead needs from them when they do UX, what’s reasonable for them to expect from the project lead when they do UX, and, for another thing, how someone else approaches UX. Insights of that type can induce them to become more responsive to the project leader when they do UX and add to their UX skill set.

    And then there’s the issue of morale. Making the workplace routine less routine is one way to lift everyone’s spirits. And the confidence that your co-workers can improvise as needed to fill in for you — whether that’s to remind you of a point you forgot to cover or to take your place while you’re out — can boost your morale, too.

    And, no doubt, many more.

    As Leo said, with “flexible rules with a flexible, intelligent swarm, you’ll be able to achieve great things.”

    Yes, it does take a lot of talent to manage that way, but you’ll lose a lot of talent — as people either stay and underperform or leave in search of opportunities to shine — if you don’t.

    Great thoughts, Peter. Thanks for this post!