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.

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