Balancing Structure

Structure Versus Innovation and Teamwork: A Balance for Stable, Long-Term Growth.

Few will disagree that organizational structures are necessary. The need to break down metrics and deliverables, tasks, reporting avenues, strategies and communication by department is important for order and success. Structure allows information to easily flow up and down the organization. It is the most efficient means by which managers and executives have the ability to assess performance and make decisions that direct the company forward.

But structure can cause problems. Processes DON’T flow up and down the organization they flow THROUGH it. Therefore, the very act of creating an organizational structure also creates barriers to process flow and efficiencies. The end result is the engagement and satisfaction of employees and customers can be significantly impacted. Buzzwords describing these barriers include silos, channels or walls. They all indicate the propensity of departments to do what is most efficient within themselves, rather than taking a global view to accomplish what is best for the company, and its customers, overall.

An organization that is overly structured, or has an inability to overcome interdepartmental barriers looks like this:

  1. Managers, rather than those directly involved in executing processes, do the mapping.
  2. Decisions about minor deviations from a process (changes from what is written) follow rigid chains of command, needlessly involving many managers and department heads.  This may result in management’s unfair and inaccurate assessment that employees are incapable of taking their own initiatives.
  3. To meet quotas, goals and timelines managers resort to forcing in more structure and greater demands that only serve to heighten tensions and reinforce barriers.  This eventually leads to burnout.
  4.  Managers are perplexed about why they are having difficultly forming and maintaining interdepartmental collaboration.  
  5. Employees say that what they think and observe doesn’t matter.

Enter Robust Continuous Improvement

Continuous improvement efforts must be robust enough to overcome inertia from the barriers that organizational structure inevitably creates.  Different than “breaking down barriers,” this work is about the process of elevating employees above silos, channels or walls. Employees must become capable of understanding the roles of others and of taking a global view. They must be supported to develop confidence in their collective observations, and then in their abilities to collaborate and solve problems as a team.

The true nature of such challenges can be difficult to see, and efforts to bolster collaboration among departments may settle haplessly around training initiatives or team building events. Including dinners, group activities or training may be helpful; however, rarely are these initiatives robust enough on their own to overcome existing barriers.

What is needed is a deliberate and focused continuous improvement initiative. One that is oriented to the purposes of inclusion, empowerment and trust. Designating several employees as champions and investing to educate them in continuous improvement principles and techniques will give your teams the tools and support needed to be proactive in understanding problems, processes and solutions.

Next, give employees CURRENT processes to review. Before tackling new challenges, they must first take ownership of what has already been implemented. Carefully select participants from different departments involved in executing selected processes. Sometimes the best candidates are ones who understand processes the least; however, be sure there is a sufficient balance of knowledge.

Once you are confident in the results your champions are getting, and have seen a real difference in the everyday collaboration among departments, your team will be ready to solve more complex issues. The good news is this will also be the point where you have achieved a balance between organizational structures and the internal innovation and teamwork required to realize stable, long-term growth.

Remember, one can drive organizational structure almost without pause so long as an internal system exists that can overcome the barriers that structure, by nature, creates.


Douglas Cook is a Certified Exit Planning Advisor (CEPA) and is the Senior Value Advisor at Headwaters Strategic Succession Consulting, LLC. He specializes in helping business owners formulate exit strategies while helping to increase the transferrable value of their companies.


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