REORGANIZING? MIND THE WHITE SPACES

I recently toured the soon to be occupied new building of a sizeable organization. Part of the tour included the workspaces of those employees who will carry out normal daily activities in this new environment and the locations of various key bureaucratic components. What struck me was how much like the workspaces and housing arrangements they were leaving this new environment looked. This was in spite of the fact that initially, the stated intent of many was to use the new facility to redefine how work would be done and to break free of old conventions, bureaucratic traditions, working relationships, and component housing.

Was I surprised? No; old bureaucratic patterns die-hard. Is the battle lost? Only time will tell. Much will depend upon whether management pays attention in the new environment to what happens in the “white spaces”: the territory on the organizational chart outside all the boxes and circles, the territory where so much of the actual work gets done.

Reorganizing is among the favorite activities of many organizations. But generally what happens is that the boxes and circles on the org chart simply expand or contract and acquire new names, some lines of connection change, a portion of the work force acquire new affiliations, a few bosses move around, and yet basically things go on as usual. If the goal of reorganizing is to change elements of your organization’s operating culture and bureaucratic relationships, it rarely works.

To accomplish these later goals requires breaking free of the mentality that what is important in a reorganization is who controls what, who reports to whom, and whether each of the various current bureaucratic kingdoms will survive. Rather it requires focusing on the work of the organization, how its talented workforce need to interact to accomplish that work, and then creating the physical and technological infrastructure to facilitate that interaction. In short, the key is to organize around the work not the bureaucratic entities that constitute the organization.

In previous blogs, I mentioned the California-based design firm IDEO. They are regularly asked to design a new work process for an organization. One of their first steps is usually to assign an anthropologist or two to spend time inside the organization to observe and document the process, tools, efficiencies and inefficiencies, and people to people relationships currently in use to accomplish the work in question. This initial set of observations then serves as a basis for designing the workspaces, processes, and interpersonal relationships that will achieve the new efficiencies and quality enhancements the client desires.

Short of hiring your own design firm, simply spending the time required to observe your employees in action will provide a great deal of insight into the work space configurations, skill mix relationships, and technological needs that have the potential to significantly enhance the quality and timeliness of your output. In most organizations, smart and talented people have a way of forming the relationships and achieving the technological connections necessary to get the work done. They accomplish this despite the bureaucratic impediments they often confront.

So the next time you are considering reorganization, pause and study the white spaces in your organization. Watch how your workforce gets its work done, and then organize around that work. As the work itself changes, change the organizational structure to accommodate it.

People are generally surprised when they are told W. L. Gore & Associates – the inventors of Gore-Tex among other things – has no organizational chart, no bosses, no hierarchical management cadre, and numerous workspaces that number no more than 200 people. Bill Gore’s idea is that everybody should know everybody else they work with by name. This works for them because, above all else, Bill Gore’s company is organized around their work.

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