Is your organisation irrelevant?

Astronomer Edward Charles Pickering's Harvard computers
It doesn’t really matter which which way up you put the organisational pyramid the statically defined, stable organisation is looking quaint and increasingly irrelevant.

There are a lot of conversations rattling around the Internet at the moment on which is the best way to structure your organisation: with the leaders at the top, or at the bottom{{1}}. Some – many would say the old school – lead from the top in organisations that have strong command and control structures where information flows up and commands flow down. Others – the new school – lead from the bottom, focusing on empowering the team to get the job done and pushing roadblocks out of their way, with information flowing down and guidance floating up.

[[1]]Paul Bennett (November 2012), Curious about … hierarchy @ Curiosity Chronicles[[1]]

Both of these approaches have their merits. Of the two I personnally like leadership from the bottom; some of my more productive times have been when I have had a good manager keeping the roadblocks away from me, allowing me to get on with the job. Though command and control has also been shown to work in many circumstances, all the way back to Henry Ford and Frederick W. Taylor.

However, the environment we operate in today is a lot more fluid than the environment of the past, the environment where the vast bulk of our current organisational theory was formulated. Information flows much more rapidly than it used to while the world seems to change every year rather than every generation. The traditional static view of the organisation – one where it has a well defined and stable structure (someone leads, others follow, even if you’re leading from the bottom) – is starting to look a bit long in the tooth.

Static structures are good when you know the challenges ahead and can plan and organise accordingly. Responding to today’s unstable market can require a different approach.

Organisations have become porous and our teams increasingly heterogeneous. It’s common to find yourself working on a problem side-by-side with colleagues, partners, suppliers, and even customers and competitors. Our organisations have shrunk, flattening as we’ve outsourced functions or even simply handed responsibility to our existing partner and supplier network. Even the composition of these teams and departments has become more dynamic, as we find ourselves needing to reconfigure our organisations to accommodate market demands, new capabilities and technologies, and changes in the market in general. Most departments that used to focus on doing things are finding themselves driven to focus on planning and organising for things to be done while handing the doing over to a community of partners and suppliers.

The one-every-year-or-two reorganisation we used to endure seems to have become a constant reevaluation of our organisation’s structure as we struggle to ensure that the right people are leading and the right people are following. For many companies the organogram describing their organisation now has little relevance other than to record who gets paid what. The real organisation structure – the one that involves work being done and goals achieved – is the constantly changing informal bonds between the individuals and teams who are the focus of the organisation’s current efforts, and the others supporting them. There are, however, other models that cope much better with this rapid pace of change.

It’s not uncommon on an operation conducted by the British SAS (Special Air Service) to be led – at least for a time – by a junior member of the team. While the majors and generals might provide direction over the longer term, in the middle of an operation the SAS has the sense to ensure that the best person for the job is leading the team, even if this means having senior personnel (sometimes very senior personnel) under the command of the junior members. When the unexpected happens often the best way to respond is to put the individuals best equipped to solve the problem in charge and follow their lead.

Something similar happens in World of Warcraft. While the long term objectives of a guild might be set by the guild’s more exerienced members, raiding teams form organically, attracting the individuals with the skills and resources that the team feels will provide it with the best chance of success. Leadership of the team may also pass from individual-to-individual during the raid itself, as the team recognises that different skills are required at different phases of the operation.

Surviving, succeeding or even thriving, in a rapidly changing world involves bringing the right skills to bear on the problem in front of us. Often the individuals with the skills required to lead us to success in the short to mid term might not be the same as the people responsible for the oversight of the organisation. Leadership should sit with whomever who is best equipped to lead at the moment. This is not simply leading from the bottom, empowering the team and stepping back; the senior members of the organisation might find themselves working under the direction of more junior staff.

When social media burst onto the scene the old guard found themselves at a loss, forced to rely on the direction of more junior staff. Empowering the staff in the field to solve customer problems can result in management not just supporting their staff, but also following their direction on how to respond to a problem. An operational problem on the shopfloor is often best solved by the team on the ground, with management following the team’s direction.

Leadership is no longer part of a job description: something anointed on the chosen few. Leadership is a role to be adopted when needed, and then passed on when the need has gone. It’s a dynamic thing, moving around the organisation, reshaping the organisation as it passes from individual to individual, team to team.

The mark of a good team (or community) is versatility. Mandating restrictive and unresponsive organisational models on our teams – the extended collection of knowledge workers who represent a disproportionate proportion of our value – is starting to look quaint and may just make your organisation irrelevant.

Image sourceHarvard College Observatory