The least we can do is turn the org chart upside down

We are in the midst of a leadership crisis. The rational, ego-driven authority model of organizations that is based on ideas that are over a century old will not work anymore in the future. We can dive deep into this like I did in previous essays about a non-hierarchical leadership model or about using design thinking as the inspiration to design the organization of the future, but maybe we can start much simpler. Maybe we can start with one simple inversion. What if we just start by turning the organizational chart upside down?

A traditional, century old, org chart looks like this, we have all seen it in every other Powerpoint presentation:

What if we just turn this dinosaur upside down?

We still have hierarchy you might say. That might be true, but maybe we have a hierarchy that is more aligned with how we need a modern organization to operate. The traditional org chart was designed for optimization of production processes in a world in which managers could oversee the process and needed to control the workers. In modern organization, the manager is no longer able to know everything and oversee the whole process. In a modern organization, the professionals that do the work know more than the manager. Decisions are best made as close to the action as possible. Decisions are best made based on knowledge of the work and not based on hierarchy. Leadership is a service to the people that do the work. That was true for the century old traditional model and that is true for the inverted model. The question is how the people that do the work are best served. A century ago, in the factories where the traditional org chart was invented, the workers were best served by control. There was one best way and the productivity was highest if everybody did what they were told to do. In the modern organization, the workers have to improvise, learn, iterate. This process is best served by creating the best possible context in which people can blossom. Psychological safety, resources, guidance, growth. No control. No decisions based on position. This is what the inverted org chart shows. Management layers are there to support you, not to tell you what to do and control you. Management layers are here to enable you, not to limit you. No boosted egos but equality. Servant leadership.

I think this simple inversion already tells a different story. I think we can draw other org charts that tell another story. A picture is worth a thousand words. The org chart is a powerful mental model and if we want to change the mental model around leadership, a part of this is changing the visualization of the organization. Thinking about how to visualize the organization should be part of the design process. Drawing is a way of thinking.

Feel it

Now we want different leaders, authentic, vulnerable, not leaders that are above us but at the same level and are completely themselves. We have to ground this idea of leadership, bring it down, make it honest. So take another look at the inverted traditional org chart:

Tell me that doesn’t make you feel different. There are ways of knowing that are not rational. The heart is a little brain. We can think with the heart. Just let this feeling from this org chart sink in.

[…some time to scroll back up and really feel the image, see it with your heart…]

There are still jobs to be done by different people with different roles in the organization. But, for me, in this inverted org chart, it feels as if the managing roles serve, as if the manager is not above the people but underneath. This feels more like servant leadership. This feel more like how leadership is supposed to be. This feels like if people would let this sink in, if they would feel this, they would behave differently. In the feeling of this inverted org chart, there is no space for authoritative behavior for me. There is no space for favoritism. There is no space for power play. There is space to see people. The focus is on the people who do the work and not the managers. The energy flows up. The energy grows as it flows up in this diagram. It feels less oppressive and more natural. Like a plant or a tree or a flower that grows up towards the sun. It feels like there is more air in the system. It feels like the people doing the work get all the sun. It feels like management is working on the foundation so the others can bloom. It feels like management is here to serve not to dictate. There is no authoritative hierarchy in a flower, all the elements just do their part. Tell me that doesn’t feel better. Tell me that this feeling doesn’t lead to a totally different energy and behavior in an organization.

Thank you for taking the time to read this article. I hope you enjoyed it. If you clap for this essay, I will know I connected with you. I will dive deeper into the topics around Design Leadership in upcoming articles. If you follow me here on Medium, you will see them pop up on your Medium homepage. You can also subscribe to an email service here on Medium which will drop new essays right into your inbox. You can also connect with me on LinkedIn to see new articles in your timeline or talk to my bot at dennishambeukers.com :) You can also find me on Instagram. When I am not blogging about Design Leadership, I work as a design strategist and project manager at Zuiderlicht.

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Dennis Hambeukers

Design Thinker, Agile Evangelist, Practical Strategist, Creativity Facilitator, Business Artist, Corporate Rebel, Product Owner