Your organization is unmanageable

On how you will fail to get everybody on the same page in a large organization

Wilfred Springer
Jul 20, 2018 · 5 min read

During the last 9 months, I have done some work for a large retailer in the Netherlands. Before that, I did three different startups with a small multidisciplinary team. As it turns out, there is a difference. A difference that lead me to be believe that it will be really really hard for larger corporations to move in a single direction, even though that’s what everybody in that organization wants.

So, if we represent an opinion as a vector, then this might be what a larger corporation looks like. Clearly, there is some disagreement on what must be done.

Different opinions in a large corporation

Now, there are two ways to make sure everybody is aligned and on the same page. In both cases the end state would be this:

A large organization with everyone aligned

Authoritarianism

The first way to get there is to just dictate the direction from the top down. No discussions. Just obey what your boss dictates, who — in turn — just obeys what her boss is dictating her. Although it sounds doable technically, it poses a couple of problems:

  • It requires the top dog to know everything about everything. That is, if you want the organization to be heading in the right direction.

If you have an organization where one boss dictates what everybody else must think, then that might be very efficient (no time wasted on discussions), but the outcome might not be very effective. The chances of the puppet master knowing exactly what to do in all circumstances is probably somewhere around 0.000000000000000000001, give or take a few zeroes.

Polder model

The other way to get there, is to make sure you keep discussing things until you’ve reached some sort of agreement. On the plus side: you will still have people with an opinion on board, and they will make sure their opinion is heard. And since these people probably understand their business much better than the top dog, it increases the chance your organization will effectively start going in the right direction. However, this particular way of making sure everybody is on the same page will not be very efficient.

Also, in reality, this option will hardly ever guarantee the organization ends up in the organized state, since it will just lead to people burning up while they are debating the same thing over and over again. So people will start running off before the equilibrium has been reached.

Now what

You clearly don’t want to have the first option (except for the military), but then the second option also doesn’t seem helpful. Getting alignment by having all people in the organization to discuss their opinions to achieve consensus will just blow the number of discussions through the roof. (If you want to get alignment between a group of n people, then the number of one-on-one discussions would be n(n-1) / 2, which for an organization of 100 people would amount to a whopping 4,950 one-on-one discussions.)

So, does that mean all is lost? Large organizations are always going to be inevitably inefficient or ineffective? Well… Perhaps not.

See, the larger your organizations, the more likely there will be people with similar opinions, as you might have noticed in the first diagram.

Same opinions

So the trick is to get those people together in a team, and make sure they are able to work in isolation as much as possible, and not be affected by other opinions in the organization:

Teams organized by opinions

You can already tell from at first sight that this is much more organized than what we had before. Still, the number of different opinions is not all that different.

Let’s zoom in on the isolation property a little more: you want these teams to be autonomous as much as possible. One way to guarantee that is to make these teams profit and loss responsible for everything going on inside their own team. In fact, I think it might be the only way. Any other way again requires achieving consensus between teams.

Then the next question is how to form these teams. One way would be to find people with similar opinions and stick them in a team with a clear and dedicated responsibility. However, if you want the team to attain some profit and loss responsibility itself, then you also need a certain set of skills, and skills might not necessarily correlate with opinions.

So even though it might be a good start to find likeminded people, there will always be some difference of opinion inside the teams. Sometimes, that will go away, but over time team members will bring in new opinions, and the truth is, it again will take some time to get everybody aligned around a certain idea.

However, getting a small team aligned behind an idea is actually a lot easier to achieve than getting agreement within the entire organization or alignment between teams. If you have a 10 person team, then the the number of one-on-one-discussions you would need to have is n(n-1) / 2 = (10 * 9) / 2 = 45. If you take the organization of 100 people, then that means that 10 teams would each need 45 one-on-one discussions. That’s 450, which is almost ten times smaller than the number of discussions required to get everybody on the same page in a 100 person organization.

Scaling it up

If you need 100 people to get the job done, then that clearly still calls for some higher-level type of organizational structure. Ten teams of ten people will not necessarily means the organization itself is effectively working in the same direction. The problem is shifting though: instead of making sure everybody is one the same page and forcing everybody to work in a certain direction, you start extracting the organizational vector from the combined vector of each of these teams, and nudge the teams only a little to be the perfect cogwheel in the joint operation of the organization as a whole:

East Pole

Distributed reflections of the third kind

Wilfred Springer

Written by

Double bass playing father of three, hacker and soul searcher

East Pole

East Pole

Distributed reflections of the third kind

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