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?

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