Grow Your Organizational Structure

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Many experts would agree that structure plays a crucial role on how people in your organization communicate. Melvin Conway, a computer programmer, introduced the idea in 1967 that “organizations which design systems will inevitably produce a design whose structure is a copy of the organization’s communication structure”. In other words, how you structure, disseminate information and influence communication paths will have an impact on how you design and produce your systems.

Two chapters in an excellent book, Management 3.0 by Jurgen Appelo, is devoted to the theory and practice of growing organizational structure. Jurgen synthesizes thought leaders’ conclusions and adds a bit of his own. I mention some of the messages I got out of these two chapters below along with a later reference to a tool called “Meddlers” which was created by Jurgen to assist in growing your organizational structure.

We say that communication is a prerequisite to collaboration.  Communication, however, is miscommunication unless it is correctly interpreted. Alistair Cockburn would say that a one-way communication doesn’t constitute communication and that communication requires that the recipient understood the message as the communicator intended.  

Many things can disrupt communication along its path. It would behoove us to create an environment and structure that would minimize this.  You can see, several environmental factors could impact communication. The number of hand-offs and the medium utilized before reaching the message’s final destination could increase the probability of miscommunication. That is one reason why most experts advise we limit hand-offs, dependencies and long communication chains and would look to create structure and teams that would also limit these factors.

How we grow our organizational structure is influenced by several factors though and is in itself complex.  How mature is our organization? What types of products/solutions are we creating? How big is our organization?  Do we have a substantial amount of new people? These are some of the questions we can ask ourselves.  And no solution can ignore time and context. This is why it may be all right to frequently change structure, as long as it is driven by a purpose.

Management 3.0 lists some heuristics to consider:

  • A preference towards generalizing specialists which are people who have one or more specialties and also general knowledge in other useful areas.
  • Widen people’s job titles and don’t pigeon-hole them into a specific skill set via title.
  • Cultivate informal leadership outside of line managers.
  • Depending on maturity, draw constraints and then let the team self-organize.
  • Limit/exclude multi team membership.
  • Keep team size small with a guideline of 4-7 people. Communication increases exponentially with additional team members.
  • When choosing whether to form a functional or cross-functional team determine the most important path of communication.  Do the people need to communicate more with others with their same skill set or with the people working on the same product?

As we think about these questions and others, we can best grow our organizational structure.  A tool from Management 3.0, “Meddlers”, assists us in designing our teams. Meddlers allows us to represent our people and their skill sets.  Hats represent skill sets and we can label the people with names if we want. We can then place them on teams and position the team hexagon with their sides against other teams they frequently collaborate with.  This helps us visualize the structure. Personally, I’ve used Meddlers to first show the existing team organizational structure, noticing the cross-team dependencies.  The visualization really helps and most of the time you would not think there were that many dependencies.  Once seeing these dependencies, we could work to understand them and work on reorganizing the team using Meddlers to reduce the dependencies.  There are other creative ways people are using Meddlers and you can feel free to invent your own.

Take a look at the meddlers web page to see more information and start growing your organizational structure!

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