Models of organisation 2
In my previous blog I suggested that we are guided more than we may realise by the mental model we have about how our organisation works. We deal with reality by conceptualising it, by creating a framework for interpreting and managing it: we do this in our organisations as we do with life in general. I invited you to consider what your model might be and whether it is hindering or helping you.
The problem that immediately arises is that our models are usually held largely unconsciously and reveal themselves as the assumptions we implicitly make about how things should be done. These assumptions may become more apparent (and thus, open to challenge) if we see how they manifest themselves in practice. So I thought I would offer some sample solutions to the two common organisational problems I mentioned in the last blog but did not discuss further. Perhaps some will ring bells with you.
Managers spend a large amount of time doing work that those who report to them should be doing – and no-one has any time to think and plan
How would you try to solve this one?
- Appoint managers who are more inspiring and attractive?
- Issue a memo reminding everyone of their job descriptions?
- Encourage team-building across the organisation?
Despite a lot of effort, team-building sessions and perfectly amicable relationships senior teams find it extremely difficult to work constructively and productively together
How would you tackle this one?
- Replace the CEO/General Secretary/bishop with someone more dynamic and exciting to inspire and unite the team?
- Manage the team meeting agendas better?
- Hold more and better team-building sessions together?
I know – it depends. It depends on what you think is causing the problem. But I want to suggest that the diagnosis as well as the solution you choose will reflect the way you see your organisation.
Here are three common models of organisation (1):
- Charismatic. Sees organisations as depending on exceptional leaders who drive innovation and performance. Arguably this model is reflected in the oft-heard refrain that our major corporations need to pay ever larger amounts to ‘high flyers’ as their success depends on them attracting and keeping ‘top talent’
- Bureaucratic (2). Organisations are like machines. They are hierarchical and focused on efficient process. You get results by dividing up the organisations’ activities into a set of units that focus on one part of the process. The aim is to reduce the extent to which organisations rely on human skill and initiative and achieve success through ‘mechanised’ and repeatable processes. This, the ‘classical’ theory has been and remains highly influential and is observed in such enduring organisational phenomena as the organisation chart and the job description.
- Human relations (3). Organisations are first and foremost composed of people. Success follows when people grow, feel supported and fulfilled and relationships are working
The possible solutions suggested to the two problems above reflect, of course, the charismatic, bureaucratic and human relations approaches respectively (in a rather tongue in cheek fashion).
In practice, of course, in any given organisation, there is unlikely to be an entirely consistent ‘theory in use’. But most organisations have a set of dominant ideas. These are unlikely to be ‘wrong’. It’s not as simple as that. But are they helping you? Any of the possible solutions I suggested might do the job, but are likely, on their own, to prove inadequate. The charismatic approach has the major problem that it is difficult to whistle up or inculcate charisma – and yet, many organisations persist in the idea they can drive performance by appointing sufficiently impressive individuals to key positions. And even if that proves possible can you sustain it given that no individual is forever? The bureaucratic approach is good for driving efficiency but struggles in a fast changing world characterised by high expectations of human participation and fulfilment. The human relations approach recognises (in what has become a cliché) that ‘the organisation’s greatest asset is its people’ but it may struggle to get them working in a focused and productive way. All in all, organisations and the societies they are part of are more complex than these models tend to allow. As soon as you present the problems as I have it is easy to see that you are likely to need more than one kind of intervention to address them successfully. So how about we address problem 1 (managers too busy with everyone else’s job) by:
- Generating agreement about the organisation’s purpose and strategy and of the roles of units, managers and teams in delivering it
- Building ownership and commitment (so that individuals both understand their contribution and are motivated to make it)
- Supporting this with processes and agreed ways of working that facilitate and encourage delegation and acceptance of responsibility and willingness to take the initiative
Or problem 2 (leadership team not productive) by:
- Creating or reaffirming precisely the same shared clarity of purpose about the organisation , commitment and so forth as per problem 1
- Clarifying the task so that its members see that that the leadership team will have to collaborate to achieve it (if it isn’t necessary, why are you worrying about it?)
- Supporting this with good meeting discipline and by a commitment to ways of working beyond the meeting for which individuals will be accountable
No doubt other interventions (e.g. coaching, learning and development for individuals) may be required as well. The key is that we need to approach problems from a number of angles, but not in a random or scattergun way. We need to build on a way of thinking about organisations that does more justice to their multi-faceted and inter-connected nature and to see the parts within the whole. In short, we need to think of organisations as I prefer to, as complex systems. Developing that thought will the subject of my next blog.
1 It might be fairer to describe these ‘models’ as guiding metaphors – on this theme see Morgan, G. (1986) Images of Organisation, Sage, London
2 Both the charismatic and bureaucratic models are identified by Weber: Weber, M. (1924) Legitimate Authority and Bureaucracy, in, Organisation Theory, Selected Readings, (D. S. Pugh, Ed.) 3rd Edition, 1990, Penguin, London.
3 The human relations model has been developed by a number of theorists, but has its foundations in Mayos’s work: Mayo, E. (1949) The Social Problems of an Industrial Civilisation, Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd., London
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