I have been spending a decent amount of time recently with political scientists, behavioral economists and their research. Why? Because they study how groups of people make decisions and get things done. During a talk on group behavior this afternoon at Indiana University’s Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis, it occurred to me that
Your organizational chart might be distracting your people from executing on the organizational strategy
Why? Let’s jump to some basic principles of how people get things done together (from a behavioral economics perspective):
Every individual creates some sort of mental model of their current situation, and the effects that their actions are likely to have on the situation. So when i show up at work every day, my brain automatically starts searching for the answer to the question: “How is my organization doing today, and what do i need to do today to get our project done, or to improve this month’s profits, or to please my co-workers or to improve our organization?”
The ability of a group to work together effectively depends on its ability to create and maintain a shared mental model of the sort mentioned above. If one member of my team thinks that coding today will get our project done, but the others think that sketching will, and still others think we should go on a picnic, there is a good chance that we are not going to work together very effectively.
The more vivid (easy to remember) and relevant (easy for each individual to apply to their own choices) the mental model, the easier it is for the group to create and maintain that shared mental model. This is why heavily visual, simple representations like the X’s and O’s of a football play book or a simple strategy map are usually more effective than a 40-page binder of instructions or a series of vague proclamations. In the absence of a vivid and relevant mental model though, people’s minds will automatically search for anything that will help them to make sense of the situation.
One of the most vivid and relevant artifacts in any organization is the organizational chart which shows who reports to whom. It is arguably one of the things which enjoys the greatest amount of shared understanding (there isn’t usually a lot of debate about whether Bob works in accounting or in marketing, about who holds the position of CEO, or how many divisions there are). It is also very easy to represent visually, which increases its vividness.
Anecdotally, i have found that, in organizations where the strategy or the strategy process are either too complicated or non-existent (see previous post here on other symptoms of this problem), there seems to be a heavy emphasis on the organizational chart and the organizational structure. These same organizations also tend to report that they are not achieving the overall results that they would like.
This is a very unscientific and preliminary hypothesis, but my sense is that these things are related. What do you think?