Do structures make a difference?

There is that quote attributed to Gaius Petronius Arbiter, the Roman Emperor Nero’s adviser on elegance and good taste that goes along the lines of ‘We trained hard, but it seemed that every time we were beginning to form up into teams we would be reorganised. … I was to learn later in life that we tend to meet any new situation by reorganising; and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency and demoralisation.’

Of course there is no written evidence of Petronius having said such a thing and the quotation first came to light at some time in the 1940s but everyone who ever reads it nods their head and laughs and think that it describes the organisation that they happen to be working in.

So why is this so?  If everyone knows that a reorganisation or a restructuring at work isn’t going to make a real difference why do we keep doing it?  Why do we fixate on the need for hierarchical structures?

Is it that there a basic need for humans to belong, to understand their place and role in society and that work is just an extension of this requirement?  Do we need to know who the boss is and who our team mates are?  This may have been fine when society was much less complex and being part of a tribe was essential for your own wellbeing and security but structures can get in the way of creating the kind of organisation that we all want to work in.

Having rigid structures, emphasised by organisation charts in neat blocks with straight lines (either continuous or dotted), leads to inter-team rivalries, a confusion over priorities and the break down in essential communications.  Defining teams in such hierarchies creates a loyalty to the team and an adherence to the will of its leader that is counterproductive to the overall aims and objectives of the organisation.

Teams are important and some degree of structure is essential but it must reflect the declared purpose of the business.  It would make no sense at all to split a football team into separate forwards, mid-field and defensive teams with their own on field supervisors where all decisions need to go through the management structure to be agreed.  So why does it make sense that we organise our work teams in such a way with separate customer, production, technical and administrative teams.?

Ah yes, you will say, but sporting teams have different coaches to develop the different skills required to play in each position yet this adds to my argument.  Sporting structures are arranged to create a single team approach with all players performing their different roles to complete a single objective – to beat the opposing team.  The role of management here is to develop the necessary skills and to get the team to work as a single unit. 

Should this not be the same in business with organisational structure in place to improve decision making rather than to segment it and isolate authority into an elite meritocracy?

We need to make sure that the structures we put in place encourage people to share their knowledge, to work together to break down misunderstanding and improve the flow of work across the whole of the organisation.  We need to let go of the concept of working for a boss and instead focus on working to achieve a set of objectives or outcomes if you prefer.  It may take some effort to get the whole team on board but the customers will certainly notice the difference.

3 thoughts on “Do structures make a difference?

  1. Communities of Practice…

    What are communities of practice?

    Communities of practice are formed by people who engage in a process of collective learning in a shared domain of human endeavor: a tribe learning to survive, a band of artists seeking new forms of expression, a group of engineers working on similar problems, a clique of pupils defining their identity in the school, a network of surgeons exploring novel techniques, a gathering of first-time managers helping each other cope. In a nutshell:

    Communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.


    Another bit of my PhD studies… 🙂

  2. I was wondering if this concept could be used for digital inclusion projects (which links into another bit of comms theory that I was tinkering with for my PhD) – if a social group embeds digital tools within their methods of communciation then it is far more likely that this skill / knowledge will be transferred to another setting and so forth…

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