In an age of disruption, everyone has to adapt eventually. However, the typical organization is ill-suited to change direction. Managers spend years — and sometimes decades — working to optimize their operations to deliver specific outcomes and that can make an organization rigid if the face of a change in the basis of competition.
So it shouldn’t be surprising that the idea of a networked organizations have come into vogue. While hierarchies tend to be rigid, networks are highly adaptable and almost infinitely scalable. Unfortunately, popular organizational schemes such as matrixed management and Holacracy have had mixed results, at best.
The truth is that networks have little to do with an organization chart and much more to do with how informal connections form in your organization, especially among lower-level employees. In fact, coming up with a complex scheme is likely to do little more than cause a lot of needless confusion. Here are the myths you need to avoid.
Myth #1: You Need To Restructure Your Organization
In the early 20th century, the great sociologist Max Weber noted that the sweeping industrialization taking place would lead to a change in how organizations operated. As cottage industries were replaced by large enterprises, leadership would have to become less traditional and focused on charismatic leaders and more organized and rational.
He also foresaw that jobs would need to be broken down into small, specific tasks and be governed by a system of hierarchy, authority and responsibility. This would require a more formal mode of organization — a bureaucracy — in which roles and responsibilities were clearly defined. Later, executives such as Alfred Sloan at General Motors perfected the model.
Most enterprises are still set up this way because it remains the most efficient way to organize tasks. It aligns authority with accountability and optimizes information flow. Everybody knows where they stand and what they are responsible for. Organizational restructures are painful and time consuming because they disrupt and undermine the normal workflow.
In fact, reorganizations can backfire if they cut informal ties that don’t show up on the organization chart. So a better path is to facilitate informal ties so that people can coordinate work that falls in between organizational boundaries. In his book One Mission, McChrystal Group President Chris Fussell calls this a “hybrid organization.”
Myth #2 You Have To Break Down Silos
In 2005, researchers at Northwestern University took on the age old question: “What makes a hit on Broadway.” They looked at all the normal stuff you would imagine to influence success, such as the production budget, the marketing budget and the track record of the director. What they found, however, was surprising.
As it turns out, the most important factor was how the informal networks of the cast and crew were structured. If nobody had ever worked together before, results were poor, but if too many people had previously worked together, results also suffered. It was in the middle range, where there was both familiarity and disruption, that produced the best results.
Notice how the study doesn’t mention anything about the formal organization of the cast and crew. Broadway productions tend to have very basic structures, with a director leading the creative team, a producer managing the business side and others heading up things like music, choreography and so on. That makes it easy for a cast and crew to set up, because everyone knows their place.
The truth is that silos exist because they are centers of capability. Actors work with actors. Set designers work with set designers and so on. So instead of trying to break down silos, you need to start thinking about how to connect them. In the case of the Broadways plays, that was done through previous working relationships, but there are other ways to achieve the same goal.
Myth #3: You Need To Identify Influentials, Hubs And Bridges
In Malcolm Gladwell’s breakaway bestseller The Tipping Point, he wrote “The success of any kind of social epidemic is heavily dependent on the involvement of people with a particular and rare set of social gifts,” which he called “The Law of the Few.” Before long, it seemed like everybody from marketers to organizational theorists were looking to identify a mysterious group of people called “influentials.”
Yet as I explain in Cascades, decades of empirical evidence shows that influentials are a myth. While it is true that some people are more influential than others, their influence is highly contextual and not significant enough to go to the trouble of identifying them. Also, a study that analyzed the emails of 60,000 people found that information does not need rely on hubs or bridges.
With that said, there are a number of ways to network your organization by optimizing organizational platforms for connection. For example, Facebook’s Engineering Bootcamp found that “bootcampers tend to form bonds with their classmates who joined near the same time and those bonds persist even after each has joined different teams.”
One of my favorite examples of how even small tweaks can improve connectivity is a project done at a bank’s call center. When it was found that a third of variation in productivity could be attributed to informal communication outside of meetings, the bank arranged for groups to go on coffee break together, increasing productivity by as much as 20% while improving employee satisfaction at the same time.
Myth #4: Networks Don’t Need Leadership
Perhaps the most damaging myth about networks is that they don’t need strong leadership. Many observers have postulated that because technology allows people to connect with greater efficiency, leaders are no longer critical to organizing work. The reality is that nothing can be further from the truth.
The fact is that it is small groups, loosely connected, but united by a shared purpose that drive change. While individuals can form loosely connected small groups, they can rarely form a shared purpose by themselves. So the function of leadership these days is less to plan and direct action than it is to empower and inspire belief.
So perhaps the biggest shift is not one of tactics, but of mindset. In traditional hierarchies, information flows up through the organization and orders flow down. That helps leaders maintain control, but it also makes the organization slow to adapt and vulnerable to disruption.
Leaders need to learn how to facilitate information flow through horizontal connections so people lower down in the organization can act on it without waiting for approval. That’s where shared purpose comes in. Without a common purpose and shared values, pushing decision making down will only result in chaos. It’s much easier to get people to do what you want if they already want what you want.