Sunday, December 24, 2017

Communication in a structureless organization

How do structureless organizations communicate - and why is that an advantage?

In a recent post, I addressed the topic of "structureless organization" from a maturity perspective. Let us explore structureless communications by comparison.

Unstructured communication

An unstructured organization doesn't have direct, congruent or consistent links between people. Somehow, everyone fits into the picture - but this "somehow" may neither be meaningful nor helpful to the organization or its customers.

Broken links, ineffectivity everywhere: Unstructured!
In the above illustration, there are inconsistencies between formal and lived structure (center), people who are somehow isolated from the structure (on the left) and broken links (manager to CEO). This means that necessary communication either doesn't happen - or only by chance.
An unstructured organization amasses communication debt at the missing links!

Now, let's look at what the communication looks like:
Rabbit Trails, Loose Ends - good hunting!

There are two communication chains. Assume you are a customer and need something that only the person (!) can help with.
Should you happen to address person (1) in the picture, they will refer to their manager, who will refer to another employee, who will refer to a coworker, who will ... blah yada yada -- until another manager gets involved, who will address an employee who happens to know the person who can help you. There's a good chance you've already stopped in frustration before you ever meet person (!).

Should you be so unlucky to address person (A) in the picture, they will refer you to person (B) - and you are none the wiser.

Of course, "unstructured" is merely a strawman as this is definitely an undesirable state for any organization to be in. Just be aware that even within your structure, there may be unstructured areas that simply "fall off the chart".

Indirect Communication

An indirectly structured organization has directed and usually consistent links between people. The only downside is the nearly inevitable incongruence between need and structure. 

A typical org chart

This is what a typical "org chart" looks like. Communication is centralized around managers, who then delegate the task back into their own unit, until an executable level is attained. The idea behind this is to maximize the efficiency of the workforce by minimizing the amount of disruption due to inadequate requests.
And this is how the communication is intended to flow:

Don't worry. You will get an answer. Eventually.

When you have a request that needs to be served by Team Blue (Tech), but your contact point is Team Red (Customer Service), the request will be judged by their manager, who will then take it yet one level higher, who will then inform the division manager, who will then inform Team Blue. The only good news in this one is that even though you have a long wait, something is eventually going to happen. It just takes patience.

Let us examine what happens when people are missing: Flu season is coming!

In this example, the blue manager has delegated represenation (<) to (?), so when Manager Blue is missing, (?) will act in their stead. This works out quite well when only one person is missing at the same time. However, when (1) needs a specific kind of help from team Blue, and the person named by Manager Blue as contact (?) is also missing, the communication chain is broken. When (4) realizes that neither (<) nor (?) is available, they might approach one person that occasionally also represents (<) - (5). However, that person is equally unable to help and so, the matter might remain sticking around until (<) returns. Usually, by then, the issue will be rotting as mail #51194 in Blue Manager's mailbox - abandoned, forgotten.
In the worst case scenario, person (1) would require something from their communication partner (2), but has been named representative of (2) and the superior of (2), namely (3) is also missing - so (1) might be stuck in a catch-22 - making indirect structures similarly susceptible to fault as unstructured organizations.

Side note: I happened to work for an organization once where the CEO claimed in an official newsletter that "if everyone would follow the defined communication paths and stop addressing other departments directly, we would be much more efficient". Does he really believe that?

In reality, most communication in org-charted, indirectly structured organizations happens outside the formal chart - because it's so terribly ineffective. They implicitly create - direct communication, just to be able to get things done.

Direct Communication

The issues so commonly often associated with indirected structured can abysmally hamper an organization. Silo structures with broken escalation chains lead to tremendous inefficiencies. Direct structures resolve this matter by installing direct points of contact between departments who reduce both the amount of managerial involvement as well as the amount of steps required to get something done.

We know who can help you.
The typical term commonly associated with direct organizations is SPOC - "Single Point Of Contact". A senior member of each unit who is familiar both with the work that can be done by the unit and the people doing the work within the unit is assigned "SPOC". This person can be approached by anyone regarding requests within their unit, so SPOC Red would receive all requests done by Team Red.
SPOC's are transparent, so a customer would either approach SPOC Red directly, minimzing the amount of overhead - or, if they don't know who SPOC Red is, they would approach anyone who would immediately know that SPOC Red needs to be addressed.

Optimized for efficient communication
SPOC Red might either handle requests to Team Red immediately or involve any team member from Team Red who can help. If SPOC Red receives a request that would massively interfere with how Team Red operates, SPOC Red will involve Manager Red for a decision.

The reason why many organizations do not move towards direct communication is fear - managers fearing the loss of control.
In a directly structured organization, managers aren't even aware of what their staff do most of the time. They operate autonomously to do what they can do to help the organization. This requires trust

So - are there any drawbacks? None that would warrant going back to indirect structures. Compared to indirect structures, there are no business relevant downsides to establishing direct structures.
The only drawback is queuing - the SPOC is an implicit queue. In some cases, the queue becomes explicit by having a ticket system where the SPOC stores and distributes requests. The more SPOC's an organization has, the more queues they own.

How do we solve the queuing problem?

Structureless communication

Queues are horribly ineffective to manage - request load is hardly ever balanced in the working world. While one SPOC idles, another might not know how to handle all those requests. Managers might be tempted to install multiple persons as SPOC - increasing the throughput of the queue without ever addressing the issue why the team receives so many requests.
Structureless organizations are different:

In a structureless organization, communication paths are replaced with communication networks. Each person has their own, individual network of persons they collaborate with to get their work done. Managers in a structureless organization work fundamentally different from indirectly structured organizations: instead of controlling the work and communication, each manager supports their own people in order to collaborate better.
Structural boundaries start to lose importance, as the manager's focus moves from departmental efficiency towards organizational effectiveness.

And this is how structureless communication happens:

When someone (1) in team Blue needs something they aren't familiar with, they ask around in their network. Maybe this is another colleague or even the manager - no reason not to. Manager blue might refer them to another person who works closer to that area of expertise, but who might not have the answer either. This person will then check their network until they found someone who can help.

This is where the Bacon Rule kicks in, which posits that the maximum separation path between any two people on Planet Earth would be six, so usually within an organization, there would usually be four or fewer leaps until someone (!) is found. Once help is avaiable, the person will connect directly with the requester - so the next time, no communication path would be traversed.

In a structureless organization, neither Manager Blue nor Manager Red are concerned with what (1) or (!) are doing and how much time it costs: If it's the most important thing for (1) to work on, there's a good chance that (!) benefits the organization as a whole by chiming in.

What happens in a structureless organization when people go missing? Not much. First, people get familiar with the work of people done in their network, so they might actually be able to do part of it by themselves - otherwise, they do have some insight who the contacts of the missing person are and will ask around there.

I would like to conclude with a small illustration of what happens in a structureless organization when one person leaves: Fill a bucket with water and put your hand in. Look at the water, look at the hand. Take your hand out. Look at the hole it left ...

In a structureless organization, you are treasured part able to contribute. No bad things happen when you leave. You are free to be where you are or go somewhere. The organization can cope with it. No bad feelings when you're on vacation.


From an objective perspective of reason, there is no reason to not move towards a structureless organization. This does not mean that there are no arguments against structureless. Most of them fall into a fear category:

  1. Fear of the Unknown ("I don't know what Structureless is")
  2. Fear of Poor Results ("But we won't reach our quota")
  3. Fear of Losing Control ("I don't know what my team will be doing")
  4. Fear of Lack of Authority ("But people need to be told what to do"), or vice versa:
  5. Fear of Uncertainty ("I won't know what to do unless someone tells me")
All of these fears can be handled, although this takes a lot of time. Once someone has seen the beauty and effectiveness of structureless organizations, most of them go away. 

To conclude, I will provide you with some examples of structureless organizations:
  1. Your friends. Nobody manages the bunch of you, yet you still get along.
  2. Any well-functioning team. There might be managers, but it's about getting things done, not about following structure.
  3. The agile community. Not only do we have vastly differing opinions and goals, we also argue quite a bit. But we can well get things done.

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