Soft structure emerges in the matrix

photo hand connecting peopleI have been talking to a number of organization design (OD) people in recent weeks. Many express the view that well designed structure with clear roles etc.. will solve many of our problems. My view is that there are limits to how much we can clarify things in a dynamic, fast changing environment and that structure is too slow and too blunt an instrument to give us the flexibility we need.

As always, the answer is probably somewhere in the middle. A badly designed structure can really get in the way and a good structure makes it easier. Neither can function well without skills and aligned systems. However, there is something in between structure and skills in complex organizations. I call it ‘soft’ or emergent structure.

These are the networks, communities, teams and groups that emerge to get things done, irrespective of the formal structure. The new field of social network analysis (SNA) allows us to map out the actual networks and connections people use to get things done and in a matrix type organization these networks cross organizational boundaries fluidly.

But these soft structures are sometimes inhibited by overuse of the phrase ‘team’. Companies with 60,000 employees talk of being ‘one team’. So do divisions, business units, functions and even actual teams.

But you can’t really be a team of 60,000 or even 60. Networks, communities, teams and groups are four distinctly different modes of cooperation. They are suited to delivering different goals. They need to be set up and organized differently, have different workflow, and need different communication processes and technologies to succeed.

Some of these soft or emergent structures develop spontaneously as the need to deliver activities demands. Others (particularly distributed communities) may need some deliberate design and support to develop and evolve over time.

Whilst anyone who has worked in a large organization knows this is how things really get done, it can be hard to draw or codify these soft structures, and we still tend to fall back on formal organization charts. During my corporate career these were rarely up to date and almost never described who to really talk to to get things done. When I moved roles I used to dig out the most recent chart and go round to managers in the area and ask:

1. Can we update this?

2. Who actually does what?

3. Who do I really talk to if I want to get things done?

It was interesting that it was only ever a handful of people on any chart who everyone went to when they really needed results (and some that everyone avoided). The real doers were also at varying levels in the organization: hierarchy was not a good guide.

To find out more about how to set up and run effective networks, communities, teams and groups read Kevan’s new book “Making the Matrix Work”.

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