Why the corporate org chart must die

It’s only been 8 months since I’ve been away from the corporate scene, and there are a few things I miss. Most of it stems from one area though: The camaraderie of a team. When you’re on your own, you spend a lot of time alone during the day. Sure, you’re on calls with clients and partners. And you meet up with people throughout the week. But it’s that connectedness and colleagiality with teammates that I really miss.

That said, there is one thing I believe we need to rethink on the corporate side: Our reliance and devotion to org charts.

Yes, I know we need them. I’m not here to condemn them completely. So before you break out your pitchforks, here me out. I’m just saying we need to ease up on our reliance on titles and hierarchy. Here’s why:

* Hierarchy breeds siloed thinking. All that talk about breaking down the silos we’ve heard online for the last number of years? It all starts with org charts. I know org charts can’t take all the blame, but it definitely sets the tone. What if your organization was much flatter and teams shared resources and talent? Wouldn’t that breed collaboration and promote sharing across disciplines? Wouldn’t that lead to more productive and happy employees?

* Titles limit creative thinking. For better or worse, your title really defines who you are on the corporate side. Work in PR? You’re the guy who handles the media. Internal communications gal? You work with the intranet. You get the idea. It becomes a part of who we are. The only problem with that is we often get too focused on the job at hand and don’t stop to look at the big picture. Chances are many of your teammates have great ideas that could help the marketing folks. But, do they ask? Do they even want them? Sometimes the answer is no. Don’t let a title define who you are and how you think.

* Org charts are a huge time waster. If you’ve ever worked in an office, how much time did you spend talking and gossiping about the org chart? Complaining about your boss. Or, talking about how you should have your boss’ job (guilty, right here). Or, bemoaning the fact that you report to one person when you should be reporting to another. All of this is a tremendous drain not only on staff time–but employee morale. If you’re senior management, this should concern you. The number of hours corporate America loses to people thinking about and talking about org charts has to be off the charts. Isn’t it time to put an end to it?

* Org charts don’t foster collaboration. Hierarchy, while great in some situations, is not the friend of innovation and collaboration. Too many people have to sign off on ideas. Too many cooks are in the kitchen on brainstorming sessions. Too much burearcracy. Flatter organizations can move at a faster clip. Less hierarchy means more speed to market. And more speed to market means you can better leverage your competitive advantage. It means you can capitalize on market conditions more quickly. And, it means you can make changes to processes and products and services on the fly. All of which is better for business.

So, what do I suggest? I’m a realist–I know org charts aren’t going away. But, wouldn’t it be refreshing to see a larger company (maybe even a Fortune 500 organization) just throw their org chart out the window and run with a relatively flat organization? Just see what happens. How would employees react? What’s the worst that could happen? Would there really be that much chaos?

And really, despite the title of this post, I’m not saying org charts should go away completely. I understand we still need some kind of structure in the corporate environment. But, what about an organization that relied not on hierarchy, but on shared teams. Similar to the way some agencies structure themselves. In this scenario, I could envision project managers pulling teams together based on skill sets to meet “client” needs. You might work on a project for three months in a media relations capacity, then work on a project using your strategy and writing skills for the next six. Doesn’t that sound more exciting and stimulating than doing the same thing day after day? I mean who doesn’t want more variety?

I think it’s worth a shot. And, I’d be thrilled to see a company take a shot at this. Prove me wrong corporate America.

Note: Photo courtesy of SmartDraw – Communicate Visually via FlickR Creative Commons.

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11 comments on “Why the corporate org chart must die

  1. jeffespo says:

    Interesting take. Never though of putting the Org chart to task for the silos. Good connection. One thing that I've seen at our company that helps foster innovation is a tool where everyone can add and communicate on ideas. It adds to the whole camaraderie and also has folks across the organization touching projects that may have remained dormant or in a silo in the past.

  2. Arik Hanson says:

    That's a great idea, Jeff. Had a similar tool at a former employer. And, while it wasn't working the greatest when I left–I think it had tremendous potential. The bigger idea is finding ways to harness the collective brainpower of your ENTIRE organization.

  3. jeffespo says:

    Not entirely perfect but a good start.

  4. Miri says:

    I agree – org charts breed hierarchy for sure. I think one way companies are getting creative is to give more fun and less formal titles. They will never go away but maybe a cool thing would be if the IT department could get involved and develop a dynamic chart where you could drop and drag the people based on the project.

  5. Arik Hanson says:

    I realize org charts aren't going away. I just think they've become a crutch of sorts.

    I like your idea of a more dynamic org chart–that kinda plays to my shared resource idea. Wonder if anyone's doing it already?

  6. gspadoni says:

    Great post, thank you! I think the org chart is but a symptom of the bigger, silo'd company culture — but perhaps throwing it out (or changing it up by making them dynamic as Miri suggests) could assist in a cultural shift. Developing the intranet with better search capabilities, internal expert finders, and interactive (blog/wiki style) functionality could help, too. Companies such as Whirlpool and IBM have done some really interesting things around innovation that allow the whole company to participate in providing new ideas…I would love to see systems like they've developed be applied elsewhere as well, as they help break down the walls, too. I am a huge fan of variety and applaud your thinking!

  7. Arik Hanson says:

    Kinda where my former employer was heading. Key to that approach: The intranet/social networks are just a tool. The key is change management strategies and tactics.

  8. gspadoni says:

    Really good point — one can have all the tools they want — but if the impetus and support for using them isn't there nothing will come of it!

  9. Toby says:

    Well said, Arik.

    Part of the reason org charts exist is so that bosses can build empires. They need staff resources to justify budgets. Org charts are a way to show their bosses how important their department is, right?

    In my experience at the U of M, org charts really didn't mean that much in terms of reporting and results. Rather, personalities dominated the culture for better and for worse.

  10. Did you ever read a blog post and wish you'd written it? That's how I feel about this one. As a guy who's spent almost 20 years inside of org charts, I totally agree that they need to go … or at least that their tyranny must end. The illusion that the org chart actually describes how work gets done is going to be dispelled by some really smart companies whose “org charts” look a lot more like their organic network maps. Brilliant, Arik.

  11. Slands2 says:

    Thanks for the post. I am at home recovering from by all accounts a very successful multiple by pass heart surgery. I have spent the last 43 years at various levels of corporate organization and as a chief executive I have tried several organization approaches. I must say at this moment that I truly appreciated the hierarchical structure in the operating room and I am so glad that an expert ENT Surgeon did not perform my heart surgery.