Is Your Organisation Broken?

March 26, 2021

Image: Joos de Momper the Younger, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons Wikipedia

Organisations are tools

[An] organisation [...] is a tool for making people productive in working together.

Peter Drucker, "Management’s New Paradigms” from “Management Challenges for the 21st Century” (1999)

The vast majority of our organisations are broken, and they are broken because they have the wrong structure and function for the job.

Those which have, by some stroke of luck, both the right structure and function, will fail to change at the required time, and will end up with the wrong structure and function, and will therefore end up broken.

Even those which do change, and change when required, will change in the wrong way, and end up with the wrong structure and function; and will consequently become broken.

Our organisations are wasteful

Why do I say “broken”? Surely this is too bold a claim? Is it too strong a statement? Are they not simply poorly-suited or ill-used? I would argue not.

Why do the organisations we work for (by investing our time and more) exist? Surely it is to produce things - either products or services - which have value to users, and then (if they are a commercial enterprise) to capture some of that value back in the form of revenue. And yet, to adapt John Yorke:

“[these products and services] have no value until they are in the hands of a user and being used for a productive effort. So any activity not spent getting the next most valuable feature into the hands of a user quickly is just waste”

Can any of us read this and honestly answer that they are not engaged in their work, day upon day, in the creation of a significant amount of waste? By “significant waste” I mean not simply waste due to slight inefficiencies; inefficiencies which, as by the sharpening of a blade or employment of a slightly different stance, can be smoothed away by kaizen-style small and targeted improvement. No, our waste is far, far grosser. It is the waste of producing things which have no definite value, and of working with and performing entire job roles, of complete departments, who cannot claim to be contributing to the organisation’s goal.

“Do you mean supporting roles?’ you challenge. “Not everyone is engaged in the daily task of making the next widget, and yet without my hiring / managing / planning / etc., the widget-making would itself be terribly inefficient, if not impossible. Your declaration is due to a misapprehension; an over-reduction of the complexities of modern business, and the ways in which they have evolved to efficiently operate.”

To which I would reply, “Are you so sure? Do you have ways to measure your impact? How can you be so sure that your efforts, both indirectly and directly related to production of your organisation are contributing?”

And then you might counter, “Just because there are no metrics” (for there are never any metrics) “does not mean we are not successful in our actions.”

And to this I would reply “In which case you must surely all be able to state your common goal, for if you at least know this then you are assured in being aligned and confident that you are all pulling together.”

And at this point inevitably, besides repeating the meaningless platitudes that these days take the place of real vision and strategy, there is silence; because these circumstances are the case everywhere, and if, by some miracle they are not at present, they will be soon enough, for the reasons I set out at the beginning.

The wasted potential of people

This waste that we are all engaged in has a name. It is the worst waste of Lean; the wasted potential of people.

But it is worse than this. Not only are our organisations wasteful, but also this waste is not what we (myself included) want. We want to contribute. We do not wish to be engaged in the generation of this waste, and yet if we are honest we know we are to a painfully significant degree.

Why is it so prevalent? It is because, as I have illustrated, despite all of our best endeavors, it is the structure and function of the organisations in which we work which prevents us from succeeding. If the means to resolve these issues were in the hands of the individuals who suffer from them, then there would not be such a magnitude of this kind of waste.

This is the reason why I can confidently state that our organisations are broken; because we all know it; because we see and feel it every single day.

Should bad strategy not take the blame?

Yet, if not already depressed by this dialogue, some fight on, raising the challenge “surely a great deal of these failures are strategic and not organisational; due to poor focus - or if we’re being kind - lack of clarity?”

But if this were the case, Simon Wardley would not have had to talk so directly and repeatedly to organisational matters in his key doctrines. I am thinking here of the following (and would at encourage the challenger to take a look at them in detail) “be transparent”, “remove bias and duplication”, “optimise flow”, “think small”, “distribute power and decision-making”, “provide mastery, purpose and autonomy”, “there is no one culture” and “design for constant evolution”.

And here we must acknowledge the assistance that the respondent has given us by their challenge. Why is there so much on organisation, both structure and function, in the Wardley method? It is there because the problem of organisation echoes very closely the problem Simon Wardley identified regarding strategy; viz organisations and those who run them have no idea what structure and function they should cultivate. And just as with strategy, leaders are terrified of admitting this, and so blindly copy others, and make incredibly costly mistakes.

But it is worse - at least in strategy there are many different options to copy from, and this flailing around at least provides for some diversity of sport for Wardley as he discusses his approach. Meanwhile, in western organisations there is only one structure, and one set of functions, and what that structure and those functions are is where we shall turn next.

A potted history of the “One Right Organisation”

All organisations are fundamentally the same structure, and operate the same functions. It need not be this way; but it is.

Let us consider how we got here. Why are organisations always the same in these regards? Astonishingly there are few who, if challenged on the street to extemporise on why organisations have developed into their current form and function, could articulate even part of an answer. This is despite the fact already mentioned that there is so little diversity, and that “organisation” of our kind is a relatively recent phenomenon.

We must turn to the great management thinker, Peter Drucker for a potted history. Firstly, the origins, and with them the hierarchy, and idea of a means of communication:

“Back in 1870, […] large enterprises were first beginning to take shape. At that time, the only large permanent organisation around was the army. Not surprisingly, therefore, it’s command-and-control structure became the model for the men who were putting together transcontinental railroads, steel mills, modern banks, and department stores. The command model, with a very few at the top giving orders and a great many at the bottom obeying them remained the norm for nearly one hundred years.”

Peter Drucker, from “Management as Social Function and Liberal Art” in “The New Realities” (1988)

Then came the subdivision into departments and beyond that into specialisation of individual roles:

“By World War I the standard functions of a manufacturer had been developed: research and engineering, manufacturing, sales, finance, and accounting, and a little later, human resources (or personnel). During World War I, large numbers of unskilled, pre-industrial people had to be made productive workers in practically no time. To meet this need, businesses in the United States and the United Kingdom began to apply the theory of scientific management developed by Frederick W. Tayor. […] They analysed tasks, and broke them down into individual, unskilled operations that could be learned quite quickly”

Peter Drucker, ibid

To many, myself included, this history is a revelation. That it rings true is important, but more significant is the lack of general awareness as to the ubiquity of this single model, or of the why. Surely these facts in themselves go a great way to explaining why so many competent, skilled, and motivated people persist in working with the structures and functions in which they find themselves, and with their every action, reinforce the status quo. For when there is only one, the natural assumption is that it must be “right” and the “only way” and so the best way to get on is to “work with the system”. Within this world, who has the chance to examine the system itself, and perchance entertain the possibility that it is, in fact, only one of many possibilities.

Beyond “One Right Organisation”

This is not a recently identified problem. Drucker sounded the alarm on the issue way back in 1999 (emphasis is the authors):

“From the very beginning more than a century ago, the study of organisation has rested on one assumption: There is–or there must be–one right organisation. What is presented as the ‘one right organisation’ has changed more than once. But the search […] has continued, and continues today. ”

Peter Drucker, “Management Challenges for the 21st Century” (1999)

He continued, in terms which still form a stinging accusation:

“Immediately after World War I [… there] developed the principle of decentralisation. And now, in the last few years, we have come to tout the team as the one right organisation for pretty much everything.”

Peter Drucker, ibid

But If our organisations are failing us, and they are all the same, what is the solution? Drucker concludes, and here gives us hope:

“There is no such thing as the one right organisation […] It has become clear that organisation is not an absolute. It is a tool for making people productive in working together.”

Peter Drucker, ibid

What are the alternatives?

So we see that the situation is not as bleak as it may seem, and there are other reasons for growing optimism.

For one, the notion of organisational change is nowadays a commonly accepted, if always misapplied one, if for no other reason than software is continuing to eat the world. Secondly, the concept of “Organisational design” has, of late, become a buzzword, signaling that the concept has reached a point where in-depth consideration and investigation is likely possible. Thirdly, the continued successes of the lean movement - which bears with it a new product-focus - coupled with the dominance of DevOps in all things software-delivery - underpinned and bolstered the solidly statistical conclusions of Dr. Nicole Forsgren et al’s “Accelerate” - indicates that the ground may be set for what needs to come next: An extensive, diverse, and effective move to a new way of thinking about, and working with our organisations as tools - both in structure and function.

Given all this, how might we set about fashioning these new organisation-tools?

I have argued elsewhere that the proto-skills for such a revolution are already widely available - systems thinking, distributed software design, evolutionary design. To this I would add further ingredients of service design, promise theory, and pattern languages as well as lessons learned from the various social and political movements of recent times.

The elements of a new approach are also to hand. Massive and collaborative co-design, and experimental rather than prescriptive discovery and adoption techniques will have significant roles to play. The change in approach will matter far more fundamentally than the destination, for we know from vast experience that we love to copy others, rather than finding what is right for us (just look at the “Spotify Model” and the Agile backlash).

But we must additionally change the cadence of our approach. There will never be a “one size fits all” solution, but it is clear that the “massive annual re-org” suits no-one. Smaller, more targeted, and near-continuous change will become the name of the day, dictated by the needs of the organisation.

The degree to which these elements differ from how we do things today will vary on a case-by-case basis, guided by their specific needs as well as the times they find themselves in. I am not calling for the next “best way of doing things” - to do so would be to fail to escape the trap that we have just described - rather I am arguing for an honest and full appraisal of where we find ourselves, and a collective and sustained effort to drive relevant and effective change.

So what to do first? How about a return to first principles? How about directly identifying and considering the needs we have as people working in organisations? If we did, what might this look like? If you’re excited to find out, so am I.

I’ll get into all these aspects and more in the later parts of this series. Next up, a humble suggestion for a list of services that all organisations provide.

Is Your Organisation Broken? - March 26, 2021 - {"name"=>"Andrew Harmel-Law", "github"=>"andrewharmellaw", "twitter"=>"al94781"}