Good Organizational Design is Destructive

Most Human Beings Are Remarkable. Most Organizations Are Not.

Of course there are the bad eggs among us but they are vastly outnumbered by the rest of us. Outnumbered by the folks who want to do good work, want to make a meaningful contribution to their organization, and want to bring more of themselves to their work. Despite this numerical superiority, it often seems like our organizational structures are designed for the extreme minority — the lazy, unmotivated, and mendacious.

Too many organizations are designed with this negative basic assumption. We make policies, rules, and bureaucratic hoops that make sense when we assume the worst about our employees but only serve to frustrate everyone else. Then, in a cruel twist that serves to validate those who think this is the only way to work, we wonder why people placed into an environment with such low expectations often act in accordance with those expectations (see Pygmalion Effect).

Sensible Precaution is Necessary. Complete Control is a Harmful Illusion.

Of course basic safeguards need to be in place to prevent truly catastrophic behavior from destroying the organization. I’m not saying we should give everyone full access to the corporate bank account or not install security measures to protect important data. I’m not saying we should all live in a fantasy land where everyone is pure of heart and where shucks-by-golly-everyone-is-just-doing-the-best-they-can. What I am saying is that in many cases we have moved way too far to the everyone-is-a-lazy-criminal mindset instead of giving people benefit of the doubt where it’s safe to do so.

What would happen if we operated and designed our organizations from the assumption that (most) human beings are overwhelmingly capable, motivated, and positive?

Organizational Design From a Positive Perspective

First, assume good things about the people who are operating within the organization. Assume that given the right encouragement and environment people work hard because they are intrinsically motivated, that people are capable of managing (or learning to manage) themselves, and that given the right support folks will figure out how to get the skills and abilities they need to thrive.

Given the first assumption, you must then think of organizational design as an effort in minimalism. You no longer need to create or maintain heavy handed structure or policy designed to eke out work from the shirkers trying to figure out the best way to avoid working hard. Instead, good organizational design turns into an exercise of taking the positive components of human nature and amplifying them (for more see Theory X/Theory Y).

Here are three natural tendencies of human beings that can be amplified through minimal means to make our organizations better.

Human Trait #1: Don’t Let Down the Team

Nobody wants to let their friends down. Nobody wants to be seen as the weak link in a team. Granted, if you hate your teammates or don’t care about your mission then letting them down probably isn’t the biggest of your concerns. But there’s a part of our psychology — probably a part leftover from our hunter-gatherer days where disappointing the group meant becoming saber tooth tiger lunch — that wants to make a meaningful contribution.

From an organizational design perspective, teams need to be comprised of people who feel unified by a meaningful mission, where contributions to the overall health of the team are clearly known (perhaps through public metrics or dashboards), and where everyone on the team affirms each other’s humanity instead of diminishing it (centering on healthy norms and rules of engagement). Simple, but not necessarily easy.

Human Trait #2: Intrinsic Motivation is Real

People will do the things they enjoy or care about without external motivation. Who needs a complex system to remember to play video games or [insert your favorite hobby here]? If we all found the same things intrinsically motivating then this would be easy to design for. Unfortunately (or fortunately) what people in an organization find intrinsically motivating will be as numerous as they are. A hopeless situation for cultivating intrinsic motivation, right?

In a traditional organization work is locked into job descriptions that are matched to individuals on a 1-on-1 basis. The job description is an attempt at collecting many different roles into one logical (to the person writing the job description, not the person filling the job) bundle. The result is that we hope our job descriptions overlap with our own intrinsic interests with varying levels of success.

The parts of our personality and interests that don’t align with the job description become leftovers. They live outside the cookie cutter that is our “job” and are thus discarded — a sad waste of human motivation and potential.

Good organizational design can do a couple things to address this. First, create a role marketplace where people can self-select into projects, tasks, or responsibilities that speak to them on a personal level or allow them to use their intrinsic interests. Experience and skill obviously play a role in many roles, but there are likely to be numerous opportunities within your organization where a motivated person can step into a role outside their normal day-to-day responsibilities that speaks to them on a personal level and allows them to bring more of themselves to work.

Second, organizations that truly understand this principle encourage and teach their people to take self-directed action in completely new directions.

One client we’ve worked with recently has a remarkably well-developed employee fitness program. It wasn’t created by an external consultant or because the boss said it needed to happen. It was created by a small group of employees who wanted to create it. They were given a small budget and they self-organized around the creation and maintenance of a program that now the whole organization enjoys. Nobody at the top of this organization could have predicted this would be something this specific group of employees wanted to create and if they had try to mandate it I doubt it would’ve had the staying power it has. People with intrinsic interests were given the time and space to do something new.

Human Trait #3: Learning Can Suck, But Having Learned is Sublime

Nobody looks back at having learned a new skill and thought, “Dammit. I didn’t want to learn that.” It’s the process of learning that rubs many people the wrong way. Whether that was a teacher droning on at the front of a stuffy classroom or a seemingly endless and mandated corporate training — the act of learning is often terribly designed and a horrendous overall experience.

Even putting the delivery problems aside, it sucks to feel like a beginner at something and it’s even worse to feel silly in front of people you have to spend time with every day. Nobody likes being judged or punished for learning.

Having learned, though? Nobody gets mad about that.

Good organizational design makes learning easier, lowers the stakes, and makes it more enjoyable. It lowers the stigma around failing. It helps teach people to value and manage the self-development process as opposed to shuttling them through the cattle-like experience of mandatory corporate training. It doesn’t punish people for failing while learning. In a nutshell, it understands that learning can be a tough process and that it looks different for everybody but the feeling of developing and growing is nearly universally appreciated.

Organizational design doesn’t have to be an act of creation. More and more I’m becoming convinced that good organizational design is often an inherently destructive act — an act of removing barriers, cruft and roadblocks that are simply obstructing the intrinsic abilities, motivation, and awesomeness of the human beings working in an organization.

We’re quick to add bureaucratic leeches in an effort to feel in control and protected. Too often these leeches become a permanent fixture in our organizations long after they’ve outlasted their usefulness.

Instead of stopping and asking why we’re okay with everyone walking around covered in leeches we look for ways to cover them up or work around them.

It’s insanity to think people can thrive in such an environment. Remove the leeches instead of trying to restructure or reorganize the leeches and watch your people thrive.

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