Disciplines as diverse as military strategy, urban planning and software development have come to a similar conclusion: top-down control hinders dexterity. When simply applied, systems of control can slowdown response time, act upon out-of-date information, and limit the variety of responses available to react to a dynamic environment. Organizations are more dexterous when each person in the company is an intelligent and informed agent, free to respond to the changing needs of customers, and importantly, free to develop themselves to better meet those needs.
Consider the words commonly used to refer to employees. Words such as ‘assets’ or ‘human capital’ that frame people as things that companies own, and downplay the freedom of individuals to act independently. The word ‘employee’ means, literally, one who is used. Metaphors are more than figures of speech. They are tools we use to think. The metaphors we use inside organizations are particularly interesting because they create a shared mental model of what the company is and how it functions. The metaphors we use to speak and think about our organization often guide how we operate.
Flipping the org chart: the standard organizational chart is one of the more potent metaphors of control. It positions management at the top with teams below. My team and I have been conducting a simple experiment: we have inverted that structure.
In The Metaphors We Live By, cognitive linguists George Lakoff and Mark Johnson point out that in almost every culture, the metaphor of up vs down carries a similar set of meanings: up nearly always means more, and down means less; up health, down sickness; up virtue, downvice; up consciousness, and down unconsciousness.
Most germane to the topic of organizational dexterity, Lakoff and Johnson point out that up means control, and down means subject to control. “I’m on top of the situation. He is under my control” or “under my thumb”. Overlords hire underlings. Top dogs dominate underdogs. People who rise to power have control over others. The traditional organizational chart gives visible form to existing preconceptions about who controls whom in organizations, and cannot help but reproduce ideas that devalue individual autonomy. Flipping it destabilizes assumptions upon which many previously unquestioned beliefs are based.
For instance, when I imagine myself below, and the team above, I’m more able to see my role as one of support, not top-down control. From the new position, I’m responsible for fundamentals such as making sure the team gets the resources it needs, and articulating the values and purpose of the organization.
The effect of flipping the organizational chart is more dramatic for individual contributors; it’s as if they have been transformed from nouns – owned things – to verbs. Instead of being the lowest layer beneath a pyramid of stacked blocks, sub-teams seem to stretch up like the branches of a tree, towards light and air. It’s an apt metaphor: the tips of the branches are where the most growth takes place. As one team member remarked: “It’s like we took the lid off the organization.”
Flipping the organizational chart did not, on its own, improve our organizational dexterity. We were already testing out more nimble alternatives to top-down management, and the revised chart is apart of those tests. But once redrawn, it became the most visual and compelling emblem of our emerging philosophy, and has informed many changes:
The team has become highly self-organizing. Without much guidance from me, it has designed its own weekly meeting cadence – starting off with one model, and then, through debate and rapid prototyping, arriving at a simple set of bi-weekly stand-ups, where team members share progress and can reach out to each other for help. The team has also established a monthly retrospective to identify areas of self-improvement, and another weekly meeting in which anyone can nominate an educational topic of their choosing.
PROJECT ALLOCATION AND TRACKING
Determining who works on what is no longer my responsibility alone. Within practical limits, projects are self-selected by team members based on which work interests them most. Each month, the team reports on how rewarding their work is; if it falls into the red, we discuss how to improve or eliminate the work.
Traditional top-down management classifies people by job role and measures performance against the requirements of the role. It then sets development plans to bridge the gap between individual skills and the role description. This pushes everyone in the same role to conform instead of encouraging a diversification of skills. A team with uniform skills is less likely to be able to respond to diverse and changing customer needs. Instead of blindly converging on the same skill profiles, each team member consciously identifies areas in which they wish to specialize – one in design thinking, others in process improvement methodologies, and yet others in business architecture.
A NEW PERSPECTIVE
Taken together, these practices have resulted in a team where every member is a leader. Our customers are happy: last year our customer net promoter scores were an extraordinary 9.5 out of 10. Every completed project has resulted in repeat business. And the team is happy. In our employee survey, the team responded with a 100% favorable score for quality of management, and an 88% favorable score for getting work done – both well above average. Flipping the organizational chart doesn’t take much effort. Admittedly, the inverted chart must be hand drawn because all the products designed to auto-generate charts support only the traditional format. And, if you are a manager like me, your ego might feel a slight twinge as you find yourself in a supporting role. Nonetheless, the potential upside makes this small experiment worth it.