Blow Up the Org Chart

May 8, 2019

Blow Up the Org Chart

Organizational charts, titles, and job descriptions serve important purposes. Use them to do the right thing. Don’t let them get in the way of doing the right thing. Set up strategies to counterbalance organizational structures.

What is Amazon’s senior leadership’s biggest concern for their business? A competitor? Cybersecurity? Government regulation or interference? They certainly take all of these into account as they execute their seemingly unstoppable march to change every industry in the world. However, I believe the threat of creating a bureaucratic quagmire that bogs down the innovation machine driving Amazon is their greatest concern.

Bureaucracy is insidious. It can grow and flourish like a cancer. It can creep through your organizational chart with a grim determination until it has choked your company’s efficiency and innovation.

No matter how carefully you design the organizational chart, no matter how often you do a reorganization (hopefully not annually), and no matter how much job design expertise you bring to the table, you are—at best—organized for predictable situations and today’s business. When things go sideways or when a change initiative is underway, you are at high risk of a cross-functional, bureaucratic chokehold.

In his 2016 letter to shareholders, Bezos warned that the quickest way to become a dreaded Day 2 company was to rely on process as proxy. Good process serves the business so the business can serve customers, Bezos said, but if you’re not careful, the process will consume the outcome. 

“This can happen very easily in large organizations. The process becomes the proxy for the result you want. You stop looking at outcomes and just make sure you’re doing the process right. It’s not that rare to hear a junior leader defend a bad outcome with something like, ‘Well, we followed the process.’ A more experienced leader will use it as an opportunity to investigate and improve the process. The process is not the thing. It’s always worth asking, do we own the process, or does the process own us? In a Day 2 company, you might find it’s the second,” wrote Bezos.

Conway’s Law and the Consulting Organization
Conway’s law states that “organizations which design systems…are constrained to produce designs that are copies of the communication structures of these organizations.” Although it reads like a Zen koan, this 1967 computer programming adage has a useful corollary to business. In short, it states that multiple authors must communicate frequently with each other to ensure  a software module’s function. Because the design that occurs first is almost never the best possible, the prevailing system concept may need to change. Therefore, flexibility of organization is important to effective design.

According to Nigel Bevan, a usability expert, Conway’s law is evident in the design of many corporate websites. “Organizations often produce websites with a content and structure, which mirrors the internal concerns of the organization rather than the needs of the users of the site,” Bevan says.

The way a consulting practice is organized and deployed offers helpful concepts here. A consulting practice is often aligned to one core axis such as geography or industry, and then a second axis such as solution. These long-lived organization alignments are used for talent management—hiring and training—and the development of intellectual property. A consultant often is a assigned a performance manager as part this organization alignment. But the business of consulting is based on clients and projects or a mission. A project often requires people in a way that cuts across the primary organization structure. A project has a beginning and an end to it. And a project has one leader. The formal organization chart helps to guide messaging to the market; it helps define and hire for the right industries and solutions; it cultivates expertise and communities around this expertise; and it helps people grow. 

But it’s not the way real projects with clients get done. In the real world, the project team reports to the client engagement leader. When done correctly, everyone pitches in on all topics to achieve the right results for the client. Serving the client, getting the project mission done, is the primary orientation, not the organization charts within the business.

Nonconsulting organizations should borrow from this playbook. Maintain your normal organization model and reporting hierarchy. But when there is a project or a mission to accomplish or a problem to solve, report to the leader of the initiative. Project success is measured only by the success of the initiative, hopefully to the delight of customers. This “all hands-on deck” approach is clean, clear, and simple. It cuts down countless hours of meetings and extraneous communication. It leverages the most experienced talent on your team. It promotes a culture of yes.

Even with Amazon’s small-team organizational structure, the leaders sometimes find their organization chart and job descriptions not serving the immediate situation. When this happens, they will quickly form project teams pulled from across the organization. The leadership principle of ownership means that a leader never gets to say, “That’s not my job.” Customer obsession and metrics support the mindset of not letting job descriptions and the organizational chart get in the way of doing the right thing.

Make It the Expectation
How do you institute a culture of antibureaucracy? At Amazon, these cultural norms and expectations are not assumed or taken for granted. They are reinforced and passed on in a dynamically growing organization through communications, tribal lore, and leadership examples. Don’t assume that communicating this idea once is going to get the job done. Repeat, repeat, repeat—just like brand messaging, you must always be on message.

A passion for problem-solving focuses energy on the right types of results and collaboration, and it explodes the bureaucratic mindset that organizational charts and dynamics can create. This is how innovation happens. This is how yes happens. The stakes are high, but it’s all still a game. Teach your people to love to play. They don’t always have to win. They just have to win a lot. What games might help create innovation?

Questions to Consider

  1. Do job descriptions and organizational charts at your company reduce the effectiveness of solving problems, driving operational excellence, or serving the customer?
  2. What strategies to reduce organizational boundaries could you pursue to create faster results?
  3. Does your organizational structure ever get in the way of innovation? If yes, how do you counterbalance this?

The Authors: 

John Rossman is the author of Think Like Amazon: 50 ½ Ideas to Become a Digital Leader, and The Amazon Way book series. He is a Managing Partner at Rossman Partners. 

Excerpted with permission from Think Like Amazon: 50 ½ Ideas to Become a Digital Leader by John Rossman (McGraw Hill Education; May 3, 2019).

For more on Amazon's Day 1 culture of innovation, read Inside Day 1: How Amazon Uses Agile Team Structures and Adaptive Practices to Innovate on Behalf of Customers by Beth Galetti, John Golden III, and Stephen Brozovich in the Spring 2019 issue of People + Strategy.