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.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Moving towards a structureless organization

In a recent post, I explained the concept of "Structureless". Let's dig a little deeper into how we can explore this concept to build high-performing teams and organizations.

Structural Maturity

Without explaining the above model too much further, let's see how we can use this model in team organization.

Unstructured Organization

It's very easy to set up an unstructured team - basically, all you need to do is: nothing. Even then, people dislike the chaos that ensues and will usually self-organize to create at least some kind of structure. What I see happen as a first step to move away from the total lack of structure is contact lists - people making lists who can be contacted for what.
This is often the first thing people would do when confronted with a new working environment.

Key characteristics:

ComplexityNot clear
People try to make ends meet.
It's unknown how complex the system really is.
Nothing is really known.
There might be be problems hidden beneath the surface,
which aren't even explored.
When they surface, the way forward is unclear.
Unstructured organizations are significantly less
effective than even the added potential of each.
Ad hoc
Most problems never get addressed.
Workarounds are commonplace.
Ad hoc
The best way to describe how roles are distributed is:
"Might makes right".
People either grab roles they can meet in ways that
please people in charge or are assigned a role.
There is constant dissonance between expectation and
reality, bursting out in occasional conflict.
The customer is the least problem people would care
Next steps
  • Discover what structures already exist
  • Discover who is responsible for what
  • Make communication paths visible
  • Close communication path gaps
  • Create a "skill matrix" who contributes what

Indirect Structured Organization

Indirect structures solve the problem of not knowing who to address when or for what. The indirect structure tends to rely on bottlenecks, i.e. communication paths that are used more often than they are available. Most organizations never make the leap away from indirect structures, as those are already stable. Moving beyond this indirection means resolving the bottlenecks - and some people use their bottleneck status as safety zone.
Typical bottlenecks are managers who insist on being part of communication chains and irreplacible specialists.

Key characteristics:

Indirections add complexity to even simple requests.
When indirection chains break, processes or requests
might be hanging "mid-air" without being resolved.
Major effort is required to maintain consistency.
The bottlenecks inherent to the communication chain
reduce the effectiveness of all those who rely on
anything provided by a bottleneck.
Problems get addressed when a bottleneck is aware
of a problem and has an interest in resolving it.
Communication paths typically determine a person's
role aligned with their communication network.
A person's role is often defined by the bottlenecks
which limit their progress.
Bottleneck roles tend to have high satisfaction, both
from the feeling of being needed and the power
at their disposal.
Those limited by bottlenecks tend to get frustrated
when blocked.
Indirection is a customer's worst nightmare.
The complexity of the structure becomes the
customer's problem one way or another.
Not getting responses, delayed responses and
unproportionally high transaction costs are just
some symptoms.
Next steps
  • Discover where the bottlenecks are
  • Address the indirection issues
  • Strengthen direct communication paths
  • Create a "delegation matrix" to relieve the
    overburden of bottlenecks

Direct Structured Organization

Direct structures emphasize the value of getting things done. They regard results higher than personal affinity and value outcome over process.
Very few organizations make the leap from indirected towards directed structures, and this relies especially on "managers getting out of the way". Direction requires re-thinking the manager role in fundamental ways. The toughest nut an organization needs to crack when moving towards direct structure is Larman's Law #1, the implicit optimization around preservation of personal power.

Key characteristics:

Indirections add complexity to even simple requests.
Processes do not rely on single points of failure.
Managers/specialists move from being bottlenecks
towards creating robust structures that reduce reliance
on their involvement.
Centralized structures remove redundancies and
optimize for "The Greater Good".
Problems get resolved where they occur, by those
who have central control over the domain.
Roles are typically created to meet a specific need.
Communication paths are then updated to integrate
the role properly.
People know what they are doing and where they fit in.
Customers get the impression that people know what
they are doing and that their requests move forward.
They do not like that the company's structure is their
problem - at least to some extent.
Next steps
  • Simplify request processing from a customer
  • Instill a "customer centric" mindset in those
    not directly working with customers
  • Identify the communication issues that exist

Structureless Organization

The structureless organization is not to be confused with an unstructured organization. Instead of optimizing for reaching some kind of internal goal, a structureless organization sacrifices internal efficiency for meaningful outcomes. Redundancies are the means by which a structureless organization generate robustness without falling victim to stasis. 
Managers are no longer the joints by which organizational units move, instead they become the glue keeping the construct together.
Specialists move from adding value by executing on their topic towards enabling others to excel in their field.

Key characteristics:

From an individual's perspective, complexity may
appear to be higher, as each person requires to be in
contact with more people. From an organizational
perspective, complexity is reduced, because less
formal communication is required.
People are not concerned with structure as much as they
are with collaborating to achieve results.
Where communication links are missing, "self-repair"
will create the most effective new links.
Removing indirection and structural overhead results
in maximal effectiveness from an organizational perspective.
Decentralization removes the local inefficiency and the
need for ineffective compromizes.
On the fly.
Problems get resolved where they occur, by those
who are involved in their occurrence. There is no longer a
concern for local optimization, as decentralization removes
the problem of needing to globally optimize.
Roles are simply no longer important, as the focus moves
from "job descriptions" towards contribution potential.
Even leadership becomes situational to meet specific needs.
People are able to align their personal sense of worth with
the company's goals. Motivation and morale become
Customers feel that the company is out to please them, and
everyone is pulling in the same direction. 
Next steps
  • Be aware of the danger of falling back into old habits
  • Strengthen informal links
  • Continuously improve


It's not inherently bad to be in any given stage, even if that stage is "unstructured" or "indirect structure". The important pieces of the puzzle are understanding:
  1. At which stage you are
  2. Why you are there
  3. What can you do to move forward
  4. Why it's worth moving forward

While I think that it's possible in theory to move directly from unstructured or indirection to structureless, my personal observation has been that this is extremely difficult. I personally like to move towards direct structure in a matter of days or weeks, and enable structureless from there. 
The most important piece of the puzzle is understanding that once we stop with an indirect or direct structure, we create a stable condition where change becomes increasingly difficult as time proceeds.