Isn’t it interesting how much time and energy managers invest in re-structuring their organisations?

One of my clients has such a complicated matrix structure that each time I join them to do some work, not only do I have a hard time understanding the interweaving of vertical, horizontal and diagonal relationships, not to mention the various acronyms which describe each unit, I also have to get my mind round how it is about to change!  This regular re-arrangement of the structure is apparently accepted as a normal and inevitable consequence of being in a rapidly changing industry.

I am not so sure.  I notice how weary and cynical people are about the game of musical chairs.  They comply, like good soldiers, and turn up at away-days to listen to the latest round of explanations and exhortations, but they long to get on with what they see as their real work.

There is an old French saying; “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose”.  The truth is that for the majority of employees most re-organisations leave their work more or less un-changed; they may find themselves reporting to a different boss; they may become part of a different geographical grouping, but their work and often their immediate colleagues remain the same.  So what is the point of all this re-structuring activity?

Generally what managers intend by a re-structuring is to re-focus on, for example, a new market or regional opportunity, or to achieve a different orientation, for example a greater focus on ‘customer solutions’ rather than shifting product, or a cultural change, for example to increase the level of employee responsibility and initiative-taking.

Usually a particular structural change is initiated by some re-shuffle of senior managers.  The new manager arrives in post and understandably wants to make a demonstrable impact.  He/she identifies an area for improvement,  and then retires to his office and ponders on how to achieve it.  Automatically, it seems, he/she reaches for a pad and pencil and starts to sketch new structural options, which of course he needs to keep to himself in case the ideas cause needless anxiety.  Unfortunately this self imposed need for secrecy means that he/she develops the options more or less in isolation until the moment when he/she announces them to his most senior subordinates.  By that time he has become rather committed to them and his managers, knowing this, are disinclined to openly challenge them, and so another structural change, designed with little robust consultation, is launched.

It seems managers can only envisage achieving their desired effects through re-arranging the formal relationships between units and people.  It is as if this is the only tool they believe they have at their disposal.  .

While they are usually frustrated and disappointed with the failure of their re-designed organisation to achieve the desired objectives, and tend to put it down to poor implementation, ineffective communication, or ‘resistance to change’, I am not surprised.  It seems to me that altering the reporting relationships and lines of formal communication, often accompanied by some overall drive for increased efficiency, is unlikely to have much impact on the subtle rhythms, patterns and informal relationships which constitute the way things get done in organisations.

The most a structural change can do is signal an intention, a shift in priority.  As such it is only the start of a change process.  The worst it can do is to rupture the vital fabric of working relationships, to disrupt people’s sense of worth and identity, and consign the tacit knowledge inherent in those informal customs and practices to the dustbin of time.

We would not appreciate a carpenter who turned up to lay a new wooden floor in our sitting room with only a saw and a hammer; we would expect him to have a box of tools capable of bevelling, turning, sanding, polishing and so forth.  Isn’t it interesting how dependent managers have become on a few rather crude tools when they intend such complex and subtle effects?  Maybe this is because they think of organisations as if they were somewhat like a machine to be ‘re-engineered’.  Maybe, unlike the carpenter, even increasing the range of tools at their disposal is not the answer.  Perhaps it is the way we think about organisations, as ‘things’ to be manipulated, that is the problem.  If we were to take the perspective that organisations are social processes, essentially people in an ongoing process of communicative interaction, we would come up with a different way of thinking about change.

Wouldn’t that be interesting?

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