On Org Design Vulnerabilities
Sunday, May 8, 2022
As I reflect on my experience working with or for some experienced managers in large companies, I realize how good some are at developing robust org structures that survive leadership changes or other challenges. That experience taught me a few valuable lessons about the implications of poor org designs. While I would defer to Matthew Skelton and Manuel Pais’s 2019 book Team Topologies for a collection of patterns on org design, I want to share what I learned.
The first lesson is that good org design matters more than the attention it sometimes gets. People who enjoy flat structures or those who fear delegation and prefer command-and-control, or those that do not wish to rock the boat seem to focus less on their org design. Reflecting on successful designs, I noticed that their orgs didn’t dissolve when managers left or when their org picked up new initiatives. Their orgs had a cohesive purpose for their team to identify with. People outside the org could make sense of what the org did and did not and found it usually easy to figure out how to engage with them. Some people in such orgs built deep technical expertise and grew. Such orgs also created enough leverage to pick up and deliver large initiatives.
One of my mentors taught me this litmus test — would your org survive structurally if you leave? If the answer is no or “maybe not,” you have some structural issues to resolve.
The second lesson is that poorly constructed orgs will eventually disintegrate. I’ve seen complicated org structures that got broken up or deeply reorganized due to a simple change like the departure of the manager of the org. Though some managers deftly managed large, tangled org structures, their orgs were challenging to understand and engage. Those managers spent more time managing people and addressing communication challenges than delivering outcomes.
An org collapsed when the manager left in one particular case, and changes cascaded down the hierarchy. In another case, after their manager left, some of the team members left as they got disillusioned about the org’s identity and purpose, and the org was eventually broken up. Of course, the work suffered too, and rebuilding the work took time. In a similar case, an org was designed around a particular person’s skills and interests, and when that person left, the team disintegrated.
As an extension of the first lesson, the third lesson is that, even though you took care of designing a healthy org structure, you and your org may eventually suffer the consequences of a poor parent org design. In such cases, your role may be affected when your boss leaves or someone else tries to fix the org. Your boss’s role may get affected too.
Consequently, ongoing work and communication channels may suffer. Even though cleanups are essential and good, big org cleanups are expensive due to sudden changes in dynamics and communication paths. Periodic incremental structural adjustments are better since they allow people, dynamics, and culture to keep pace with changes.
The same litmus test applies to your parent org too. Would the parent org survive if your manager leaves? You may not have much control over this challenge, but you should watch out.