Tuesday, June 07, 2011


Structures and People

“What about Dave? Um, I mean the Registrar?”

In working through the implications of some recent and pending retirements, I’m running headfirst into the legacy of structures built around individual people.

In any rational organization, Smith would have reported to Jones. But Smith and Jones just couldn’t get along, so Smith was moved to report to Johnson. When Smith retires, it’s fair to ask to whom the replacement should report.

But of course, moving one person has a ripple effect. If a Director reports directly to a Vice President, shouldn’t she be a Dean? But if she’s a Dean, then won’t three other directors in that division want to be Deans, too? And if some of the people who used to report directly to Jones now report to Smith’s replacement, will they see it as a demotion?

Over time, workflows have adjusted to accommodate the unusual reporting lines. Undoing those lines means redirecting those workflows. That will involve impacts on people’s workloads, with implications for their classifications, titles, and salaries. If any of those people are unit members, it will also involve impact bargaining with the union.

The first law of reorganizations -- even those ostensibly involving just one or two people -- is that everyone else who gets wind of it will ask first “what does this mean for me?”

It’s tempting to fall back on the old “transparency” ideal, and to try putting everything out for public discussion first. But having tried that myself, I can attest that the strategy has real limits. People who are perfectly willing to stab you in the back won’t stab you in the front; they’ll wait until the public discussion period is over and then file charges. And some who completely ignored the public discussion period, whether out of skepticism, incomprehension, or just other things to do, will suddenly storm the barricades when they figure out that the ripple effects have implications for them.

The root of the problem, of course, is that Smith should never have been moved in the first place. It’s bad practice to create Frankenstein org charts around difficult personalities, since it makes succession so difficult and it rewards bad behavior. Worse, it creates a precedent. But if you inherit a Frankenstein org chart and have the task of fixing it, time travel isn’t an option.

In industries with more normal turnover rates, these issues have ways of sorting themselves out. But when entire cohorts of people stick around together, in close quarters, for decades at a shot, it can be maddeningly difficult to separate personalities from structures.

Wise and worldly readers, have you found a reasonably effective way to avoid (or resolve) these awful dilemmas, in the absence of meaningful turnover?

Thanks for the clear incite into your dilemma, as I shake my head in dismay. "People who are perfectly willing to stab you in the back won’t stab you in the front; they’ll wait until the public discussion period is over and then file charges." Really? How can this type of behavior help to solve anything?
RE: Adam
They won't stab at all unless they need to get rid of you because you may be hindering their personal agenda of gaining power or the change will hinder their gain of power because it will be in an area in which they are weak and they know it. Then the stab will come from the back as it has in the past. That is their M O.
I have been on the receiving end--i.e. the subordinate--in these situations a couple of times. I tried to argue for a different structure based on actual logic, but I got the ripple effect story every time. "If we move you, which I know makes sense, we'd have to move Bob, and no one wants Bob . . ." One solution, of course, is to lay out the org chart without names and structure according to function, preferably with the help of someone with an objective point of view.

Another perspective I've seen, from people who study social networks, is that personality matters, so sometimes those informal structures are actually really important and are what keep institutions going. Yes, it's good to have people functioning well within formal structures and to have the right structures in place, but sometimes you make the best out of what you have.
RE: Anonymous
I understand, and would add the obvious that this systemic dysfunction is happening on the public dime. Kudos to Dean Dad for having the fortitude to put an issue like this on the table, which provides some faint hope that it can be corrected.
Was the org chart actually redrawn to accommodate Smith's problems with Jones? If not, the new person can just report to Jones per the org chart. If so, why not change it back before hiring the new person?

One of my friends worked at a company where the org chart was a myth; the vp he was supposed to report to was actually being eased out and individuals were being told not to report to him anymore. When my friend asked too often for an updated org chart, they greased the skids for him, too.

In a way, I also experienced (indirectly) the complications that arise from tailoring a position too closely to a particular individual. The individual was me, and my departure from the organization created a significant problem, since the boss wrote a job announcement seeking a replacement to do exactly the same tasks as I had been doing (tracking/analyzing legislation, writing/editing reports, and in-house computer support). No one applied for the position until they rewrote the specs to be more generic.
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