Separating individuals from the roles they hold is an important, but also difficult, and at times delicate challenge.
Unfortunately, I have experienced that leaders – as most of us – routinely mix up the two, something which can have negative consequences for the organization as well as for employees.
We won’t be able to separate people and structure completely. New organizational models will sometimes be introduced simply because they suit the people currently in the organization. Or alternatively, proposals for introducing a more optimal structure may be rejected because they are viewed as controversial in terms of the individuals involved – even if the proposals make strategic sense for the company.
But by being more conscious of the issue, we may at least avoid the trap where we confuse individuals and roles unnecessarily.
Let me use a simplified example to illustrate this point.
Consider a manufacturing company consisting of two main business units (see drawing below). The largest one is Business Unit A, led by a fellow we’ll call Jim. The question is how to organize Research & Development (R&D), which is currently one of several sub-units within the Support functions. The R&D unit is led by a relatively young and inexperienced manager we’ll call Tom.
Jim has argued for some time that his business unit is the main client of the R&D unit. He has also observed that the outputs that the R&D unit deliver seem more useful the more closely the R&D staff collaborate with his people. For this reason, he believes that R&D should be formally integrated with his business unit. So one option is to move the R&D unit to Business Unit A.
Tom, however, does not share this view. He points out that technology development is becoming increasingly important for the company’s success, and would like to move one step up and report directly to the CEO. So this is a second, alternative option – option B.
Which option is best – how do we resolve this?
Well, in fact, often such differences are not resolved at all. The CEO is reminded of the fact that Tom is young and inexperienced. He may thus conclude that “Tom is not ready yet” to become part of the leadership team, and that it is premature to discuss any changes in terms of the reporting relationship. So the process often stops there. Indeed, it is hard for existing managers to raise ideas about organizational changes because they are immediately interpreted as an attempt at furthering their own interests. In this case, for example, both of the options put on the table clearly have political consequences for the managers involved.
However, the downside of inaction is that the R&D unit may continue with a compromise structure that nobody is happy with. Is it possible to reframe this problem? It may be possible if we decouple the individual from the role.
One may first look at the R&D unit and where it is located in the organization. There are two questions that are relevant here.
First, to what extent is technology of strategic importance to the company? The more strategic it is, and the more complex the task of the leader of the R&D unit, the stronger the need for raising the unit’s profile and incorporating the R&D manager role in the leadership team.
The second structural question is about interfaces. To what extent does the R&D unit need to collaborate closely with the business units in developing new technologies? The more intensive coordination that is needed, the stronger the argument for organizational integration (I have a slidecast about this topic if you want further details).
If such a review concludes that the R&D leader should become part of the leadership team, one may then consider whether Tom is the right person to work at this level. That will depend on his experience, competence, and potential. If he is not deemed as qualified, the logical implication is to recruit a leader, internally or externally, that is capable of leading the unit at the appropriate level for the company.
It’s important to emphasize that separating individuals and roles does not mean that we only take care of the structure and forget about the people. I believe it is the other way around. It is precisely when we are unable to properly separate people and structure that the process tends to become political and frustrating to the individuals concerned. I will return to this issue in the next post.
In a third post on this topic next week, I will discuss the implication for HR if we accept the role/individual distinction.