Turn Things Upside Down

Have you looked at your organizational chart lately? If you’re like many organizations it’s probably out of date, assuming you can find it, but that’s another issue. Let’s assume you have a current copy in front of you. It’s probably shaped vaguely like a pyramid with the CEO/President at the time, then lines to several Vice Presidents, then to their direct reports, and so on.

It’s not designed that way by accident. It’s intended to make clear who’s in charge of whom so everyone understands the pecking order. If you want to know who gives orders to whom, you can just look at the org. chart. Likewise if you have any doubts about who has the power to hire and fire whom, who has the power to recruit and fill what positions, who you’d better keep happy, and so forth. In some organizations it even delineates whom you can talk to: just one or maybe two layers above you and only within your silo. An org. chart tells everyone what their proper place is, what lane they belong in, who’s ahead of them, who’s behind them, who reviews whom, who you don’t have to listen to and who you do, etc.

Even after years of breaking down silos and decentralizing decision-making, most organizations still cling to the organizational chart. It’s perhaps flatter but it’s still there. So maybe we still need it. If that’s true, let me humbly suggest that at the very least it’s time to turn it upside down. After all, the pyramid shape is a more or less arbitrary arrangement; it could just as easily be shaped like a bugle or the brackets for a golf tournament. My suggestion is that it be shaped more like a tree.

This is not a randomly chosen metaphor. Trees grow organically and what company isn’t trying to maximize organic growth? Organic growth is about improving your fit in the marketplace, providing new products and services and making improvements that increase value. In a word, it’s about innovation.

Unlike trees, pyramids “grow” by pushing one very large rock at a time up a steep incline. Which sounds easier? When you think of a pyramid, the term “nimble” does not come to mind. These are structures that haven’t undergone meaningful change in thousands of years…unless you count plundering their treasures. People at the tops of pyramids shout orders and everyone scrambles to climb as high as possible and cling to whatever footing they can find. If they lose that footing even for a moment, they risk a swift descent.

So, do you think they’re prepared to promote change and take risks? Are you kidding?!

An org. chart shaped like a tree makes the CEO the trunk. In other words, it’s that person’s job to provide support (which certainly gives new meaning to the term “support staff”). He or she is responsible for making sure that all parts of the organization have sufficient resources.

Each branch is also responsible for providing support and resources and for having the strength to help those further out hang on in a stiff wind. Then as each leaf produces value, the branches must make sure that it’s used to sustain the enterprise as a whole.

Instead of playing “general” (or “Pharaoh”), the role of a leader becomes more like that of a gardener. Issuing orders doesn’t make things grow. What will promote healthy growth is plenty of nourishment, careful cultivation, and cautious pruning. Rather than make a tree grow; you create as healthy an environment as possible and allow it to grow. Then it just does what trees do. Healthy organizations tend to behave the same way. They grow organically.

Maybe it’s time to make sure the org. chart—and those on it—reflect that reality.

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