When the trust account is high, communication is easy, instant, and effective.
― Stephen R. Covey
Changing the organizational structure seems to be the common knee-jerk response to organizational issues. My prior organization embarked on one, with the purpose to eliminate arbitrary site- and silo-based structures to align around cross-site value creation processes.
Typically an organizational change inserts a new layer, such as a COO. But think about this from a “respect for people” perspective. The heads of the now lower functions no longer receive the mentoring of the CEO, they have been diminished in stature, and their voices and concerns have to go through another layer to be heard.
If you look at the root cause, often you’ll find that the groups, and their chiefs, aren’t communicating effectively. They aren’t leading, and they aren’t aligned. Changing the organizational structure will not change that one iota – it will just shift the problem around and probably create new problems.
Years ago I was having similar issues in my company. Leaders weren’t leading, they weren’t talking, and they weren’t aligned. So one very powerful thing we did was take the entire extended executive leadership team through Patrick Lencioni’s The Five Dysfunctions of a Team and accompanying workbooks. It took a year, but we addressed absence of trust, misalignment, communication, and the like.
Sometimes it was very difficult, like the exercise where each member of the leadership team stood up and listened while the others openly and candidly discussed their “areas for improvement.” We nearly lost a couple team members that day. But in the end our leadership team learned how to openly and honestly communicate, and be aligned. Later we found we needed to work hard to sustain this improvement, otherwise we’d lapse into traditional silo politics.
The second thing we did was by accident. We had to demolish one of our new buildings to make room for a new facility. During the two year construction period I moved my leadership team into a triple-wide trailer. Uncomfortable, and the walls were paper-thin. We had to learn to live together and deal with the conversations we heard on the other side of the walls. But that created an improvement in communication. The daily executive leadership team standup meeting, where we also video conferenced in the leadership of our other sites, also helped.
One side note on that last point: as we were designing our new facility we had a lot of debate about where the senior leadership team members should reside. Initially I favored an approach that is common in Lean environments where each leadership team member is with his or her team, often on the production floor itself.
We decided to go against Lean convention and locate the senior leadership team together, on the second floor. One big reason is that we noticed that when a senior leadership team member spent too much time with his team, the supervisory and decision-making capability of junior leaders suffered. As much as we tried, it was just too easy to revert to the senior guy making the decisions. There is a very fine line between mentoring, coaching, and just doing. A set of stairs can removed the doing. Perhaps more importantly we found that it was easier to focus the senior leadership team on forward, future strategy rather than the day-to-day mayhem.
This does not mean that those senior team members didn’t spend a lot of time mentoring, teaching, and helping their teams. But the small change in physical location, and thereby focus and perspective, was important. Our junior leaders learned to step up, and eventually added a lot of leadership bench strength to our company.
Simply changing the structure of an organization doesn’t create excellence and effectiveness. You have to dig deep to improve the underlying leadership competence and communication. As you do that the organizational structure seems to be less and less relevant.
Align organizations around customer value creation processes. Respect the managers by providing training, mentoring, and feedback to improve their leadership skills. Respect the managers by allowing them to interact across a wide span, and be mentored by senior leaders. Respect others in the organization by reducing layers and barriers to communication. First look to solve conflict issues by improving leadership capability and communication – not adding a new layer. In fact flattening might actually improve communication and lessen the issue.