People focus is the key.
Who would want to work for a company that is focused on structure and systems, rather than people?
Probably few, but maybe they should reconsider.
Let me explain.
In an earlier career, I worked as an internal consultant in a large engineering firm.
During this period, the HR director once invited Stephen Drotter, author of the book “The leadership pipeline” to give a talk to our group (I believe it was in 2002 or 2003.)
I still remember his presentation, because it was rather provocative.
He argued that we should focus less on the people, and more on the work that needs to be done.
This was rather counter-intuitive to most of us: Here was a well-known HR guru, talking to a group of HR advisors, arguing that we should focus less on people!
It didn’t make any sense.
But Drotter explained that paradoxically, if HR starts to focus more on the work and less on the people, people will actually be treated better!
I was reminded about this line of thinking recently, when I came across a German podcaster, Christina Grubendorfer, discussing a similar topic.
So how can this be?
Drotter did not go into details in his talk, but here’s my take.
I think that he addressed a common misunderstanding: That structure and systems constrain us; that they are “mechanistic” things that are opposed to more “organic” and humane ways of organizing.
But an organization without a structure isn’t very humane. It is either a chaotic anarchy or a clan that is dominated by those with the most power and political influence.
As Paul du Gay, professor at the Copenhagen Business School, puts it: The question is not whether you want to have structure or not, but whether you want to have formal or informal structure.
So the risk is that by focusing too much on people, you ignore the systems and procedures that may seem bureacratic, but that actually create consistency, efficiency, and the perception of “fair process”.
As one example, consider how teams operate.
Some teams may allow people to work however they want. “The road is made while walking.” “Let’s just trust each other and things will work out.”
So the they don’t take the time to define the roles, accontabilities, and priorities. The structure is emerging and informal.
This very issue was examined in a rigorous study of 44 production teams in a Fortune 500 company.
It found that the well structured teams were not only the most productive – but also had fewer conflicts between the members.
These teams were also rated by outside observers as more likely to “improve work practices” and more likely to “help team members develop their skills and competencies”.
Sounds quite humane to me.
As the authors of this study concluded:
(…) structure and bureaucracy have become scapegoats for a wide variety of organizational problems which, ironically, would likely disappear if organizations and teams simply utilized structure appropriately (Bundersen & Boumgarden, 2010, p. 621).
P.S. If you are interested in data-driven approaches to organization design, I will hold a free webinar on September 29 12.00-1:30 EDT (18:00-19:30 CET) in collaboration with ODF. Use this link to sign up.