5 Principles for Org & Team Structure

Finish bannerIt’s not easy to get team structure right. There’s never a perfect way to do it. Every option has tradeoffs. But you’re more likely to choose the right structure for your organization if you think about it from principles (instead of, for example, just copying what you saw at a past company or what you read about in a business book).

Here are 5 principles we use to help our consulting clients think through their org structure…

1. Complex work requires collaboration

Some work is predictable. We can make plans and specifications for it, execute those plans, and get the expected outcomes.

Other work resists planning. No matter how carefully we plan, new information emerges as we do the work. In the solving, we discover both the solution and the problem.

This latter kind of work—complex work—benefits from collaboration, with multiple people doing the work together, often across specialties. Because the details of the work emerge as we do the work, we can’t plan tasks and handoffs in advance. We need to be able to respond to that emergence dynamically.

2. Teams are the best structure for collaboration

When work requires collaboration, a team is the best structure to own the work. When a team owns a work item together, they can dynamically figure out who needs to do what when. Because they share the same priorities—this is our most important thing to complete—the collaboration isn’t interrupting some other commitment.

Moreover, as teams remain stable over time, team members get better and better at communicating and collaborating, and work flows more smoothly. This increases the time spent adding value and reduces the time spent coordinating the work.

3. Reduce the time from idea to realized value

A good way to evaluate your current org structure is to map out the flow from idea to value.

  • Who needs to touch the work item?
  • How long does it take with each person or team?
  • How long does it wait at each handoff?
  • How often does it loop back to an earlier step for rework?

Consider alternative team structures that could reduce handoffs, wait time, and rework.

4. Value and complexity are in different places in different orgs

In one org, the value and complexity spans a whole customer journey. Ideally, slices of value across that whole customer journey could be handled by a single cross-functional team (or, for scale, multiple teams, each of which has the skills to handle those complete slices of value).

In another org, the complexity is deep in one highly-technical part of a customer journey. In that case, it might make sense to build a team focused on just that complex technical problem and the piece of the customer journey where users experience that problem being solved. Other teams could own other parts of the customer journey.

Leaders often make the mistake of trying to replicate the org structure that worked in their previous org. But the value and complexity were likely arranged differently in that org, and as a result, the right team structure would have been different. It’s critical to observe the current org and shape teams to match its unique context.

5. Orgs change over time

Org structure is a complex problem in itself. The tradeoffs associated with a particular org structure may not be obvious and may emerge over time. And the context changes over time—complexity gets resolved in one area of the work and pops up in another. So, yesterday’s “perfect” org structure isn’t necessarily today’s. Expect to have to slowly change structures over time as the work changes.

Next steps for your org

Are you a leader with a sense that your org structure may not fit your current challenges? Visit humanizingwork.com/contact to schedule a free consultation to discuss how these principles apply in your context. We help our clients think more clearly about their challenges, bring lessons from hundreds of organizations to the table, and can even help craft safe experiments for tricky problems like org design.

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