Power handling has changed - so should your power structures. Image by Richard M Marshall

Restructuring the Enterprise

The structure of most companies is so stale that a Victorian industrialist appearing in our midst would only wonder why there were no top hats. Everything else would be familiar. An insistence on people being in the same space. Supervisors looking out over everything being done. Decisions emerging from all male board rooms and percolating down to the skivvies to do what they are told, without question or thought. Lush offices isolated from the workers in case the smell was too bad. Little has changed since our ancestors moved off the land into the mills and counting houses.

Glimmers of change are beginning to shine through the fraying edges of the conventional hierarchical. These glimmers mostly come, reasonably enough, from startups which are inherently innovative and not inherit an existing, ossified organisation. Cultural change takes a long time, generations, and while startup culture has been glorified by media coverage, the things that make a startup a startup even after many years do not grow well in the soil of the older enterprises. Most of the time the attempts to build entrepreneurial culture, while sincere, are doomed by the sorts of thinking that will ask someone to innovate but keep within the existing corporate frameworks.

Unfortunately, the misguided mantra of shareholder value has glorified the sociopathic tendencies that call people resources, making macho behavior and a disregard for the humans that make a business functions seem admirable. In such environments trust is expected to work one way – the employee is to trust their employer who in turn will want to know exactly what you are doing, how and when. Respect goes out the window, along with engagement, motivation and productivity.

Thinking like humans

Traditionalists will be asking just how I expect businesses to be economical and deliver profits if we worry about our staff. Just like Scrooge. I would point them to Bob Chapman, who runs a massive, successful business empire on the principles of what he calls truly human leadership. I would also point them to a wonderful book called Obliquity by John Kay which does a great job of explaining why profits are maximized when you focus on delivering fabulous products and services rather than simply focusing on making that profit. Gallop’s humansigma has demonstrated for several decades that companies that have high employee engagement are significantly more profitable than those who treat their staff like dirt. While that all sounds obvious to me, our cultural obsession with money misses the point, as is shown through numerous examples.

Smaller companies run on mutual trust because they have no alternative, but big companies need to work hard at it. The founding team of small companies work well together because they naturally found each other, larger companies, again, need to work at finding that affinity.

Start with yourself

How do you start this hard work? Begin with some deep introspection. Stop being a manager and learn to be a leader. Easy to say, harder to do. As a starting point I suggest learning confident vulnerability. Are you ready to admit that you’re wrong when it happens? It’s an important skill to master. Next ensure that you create psychological safe spaces for the people you work with, allowing them to be open, suggest ideas and admit mistakes. All too many managers and companies create toxic workplaces where innovation and the associated, inevitable small failures are punished, and ideas are ridiculed. Macho management culture actively suppresses innovation, as does extreme pressure and competitivity.

The step after creating safe spaces is switching away from the org chart to outcome-driven teams. That’s not to say that you need to ditch reporting structures and management, but people need to be allocated to work on a basis of their hard and soft skills not based on their position in an org chart. Specialists will end up forming what are effectively internal consulting organisations, serving several projects within their companies simultaneously, for example a graphic designer may work on UX elements for several web and mobile apps as required. A developer will be dedicated to single project, but testers may be shared as is already common.

As a reader of DIGIT you are probably thinking that you do a lot of this already, however the next step is where things begin to get wilder. This kind of approach needs to apply to entire organisations. How can that work? By focusing on outcomes and output, not the numbers of hours people put in. Nothing new in that, it’s exactly how people worked before industrialization. Presenteeism, or the paranoid need for many managers to see their staff sitting at desks or workstations, comes from when equipment was so expensive that it had to belong to an employer, couldn’t be move and was probably shared. Plenty of equipment is still like that, but for office workers this is no longer true. When typewriters were new and innovative, they were very expensive, hence office typing pools. We’ve moved on from typewriters and it’s time to move on to new organisational structures that are adapted to more agile, responsive and resilient ways of working.

Why now?

All this has been put into sharp relief by COVID-19 forcing people to work from home. The pandemic exposed the lack of necessity of herding people into tight spaces both physically and mentally. It has shown how insanely damaging commuting is, for both the planet and the individuals. The pandemic is acting as an accelerator for business modernization.

Let us take this opportunity to collectively stand back, take a deep breath, and reimagining how work can be structured better, do less damage yet deliver more, including profit. It can be done.

This article was first published at Digit.fyi.


The views and opinions in this analysis are my own and do not represent positions or opinions of The Analyst Syndicate. Read more on the Disclosure Policy.