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Leadership Q&A: The Structure Question

Leadership Q&A: The Structure Question

One of the great advances in thinking about business over the past twenty years is our thinking about who we are as leaders and how we can work collaboratively with one another. There is great material on a strategic level as well as a tactical one about how to work better together in business.

There is a simple flaw in most of this thinking. It is that all that is required for good ideas to take root and succeed is the will to do them. The confidence in our ability to daily motivate ourselves to give our best and change at the same time is without bounds. The flaw is a blindness to a simple reality.

The structures of businesses are not organized to support human interaction, but rather to regulate it.

Draw a picture of the structure of your organization. What are you trying to show us? Mostly likely, the positions within an organizational structure filled by people. We see our organizations as places where people work together to achieve an organizational purpose, not a personal one nor a social one. Yet, all of our organizations are social

Structure for how people work is changing. It is changing as a work-around of the organizational structure that has existed for a hundred years. We need to talk  more about how to go beyond finding ways to succeed in spite of structure, and make the structure work to support advancements in human communication and collaboration.

Let’s start this conversation with three ideas.

1. We are not in control of our organizations, but rather are controlled by them. For the leaders of companies, the most difficult day-to-day challenge  they have is to think strategically about the future. Being able to anticipate opportunities and threats in the future is not an exact science.  Instead of creating structures and systems that are easily adaptable, there is a continued dependence on the old industrial model because it lends a belief in order and stability.  However, business-wise we are all living in a highly volatile earthquake zone that doesn’t call for stable fortress-like buildings but rather flexible ones that can absorb the shocks of change.  This adaptability is found in people and how they work together.

2. People are not inter-locking, interchangeable, dispensable parts of a machine. They are the power source that makes the machine function.

Human potential is a resource that can only be known in retrospect. A machine’s output potential can be measured. It is designed into the machine. There is no such design of human potential. It is not limitless, but its capacity is far greater than any of our systems of human development have been able to produce.

How do we measure the potential of our organizations? Typically by two measures, the marketplace and the capacity of the machine to produce products and services. The machine metaphor is the wrong one for both the marketplace and the organization are human-driven organizations.

Instead of a machine metaphor for the organization, a social one is better. Bringing people together is not additive, one+one=two. Rather it is generative, like the web. Many people have written about how the networked world is more like a spider-web that a set of grain-silos.

Grain that is stored in the silo is a potential resources. However, left confined, it becomes volatile. Take that same grain and spread out so its real potential can be developed, and productivity is gained. Same with people. Keep them restricted into narrowly defined roles, and their potential is not tapped into.

3. Developing new organizational structures is not a destructive process, but rather a creative social one. The key to changing structure is to create space for the new social systems of collaboration to form.  Structure - Collaborative into Hierarchy

Collaboration, in this sense, goes beyond simple team work. Rather, it creates an openness for the social context to identify and create new structures for operating.  It removes barriers to interaction and creativity. It provides the opportunity for human potential to be released through the personal initiative of the members of the team.

For a long time, we’ve lived organizational lives where our human interaction has been dictated by a structure intent on creating order rather than fulfilling potential. The shift is already beginning to take place as new organizational structures are being created that are more social, less machine like.  The potential for this change is unknown, waiting to be discovered in practice, not in theory.

Today, the challenge before executive leaders is to find the confidence to let go, and let the change happen. Lead it; develop it; and, create the structures that make higher levels of human interaction productive and sustainable for the future.

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About the author

Dr. Ed Brenegar I'm a leadership speaker, writer and consultant who is a mentor and catalyst for change. I assist leaders and their teams in the transitions required to succeed in today's complex organizational environment. I live in Western North Carolina. I'm involved the Boy Scouts, a charitable leadership training group called Lessons In Leadership, an ordained Presbyterian Church USA minister, and am the host of the Say Thanks Every Day social network.

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Posted in General Leadership, Leadership Q + A, Work Life Lead.

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