When It's Time To Restructure

By Chris Chittenden

“Trust is the lubrication that makes it possible for organizations to work."

… Warren Bennis (1925 - ) US educator, futurologist, advisor, writer

If you have worked in organisations for any length of time, you will no doubt have been caught up in an organisational restructure. Every organisation restructures from time to time as its leaders seek to redress certain concerns or improve the organisation’s effectiveness and outcomes. In many ways, restructuring makes a great deal of sense. The world does not stand still and any organisation will have to adapt its structure to changes in its environment if it is to survive and thrive. However, often organisational restructures do not fully address an organisation’s concerns even though there is a belief that they will. To understand why this happens, we have to look at the way organisations are seen.

Today’s organisations are fundamentally built on the premise that they operate in a mechanistic way. As such, they can be seen as a series of processes and systems, that can be put together to create efficient and effective producers of certain outcomes. From this perspective, if something is not working as well as it should, all that is required is a change to the machine. So consultants will be brought in to examine the various functions and structures and will seek to reorganise the structure to better suit the current requirements. We are not saying there is no value in doing this, rather we are saying this is simply not enough to address many organisation’s breakdowns. The reason for this is that organisations are not mechanistic but organic. They are networks of people working together not functions operating only through mechanistic cause and effect processes.

When we look at an organisation as an organism, we can see that there are two types of breakdowns that occur within them – structural and relational. Here is an example to explain this more effectively. From our work, one breakdown that we see in all organisations to a very great extent is a failure of accountability, where accountability means ensuring that what is committed to be done is done. From a structural point of view, this means that role authority is made clear and so any restructure must ensure that functional accountability is clearly established in the new organisation structure. In other words, everybody is clear and knows who is responsible for what. This is clearly an important aspect of a well functioning organisation. However, on a day to day basis, accountability involves ensuring that people make clear commitments to certain actions and that the people to whom those commitments are made hold them accountable if the commitment is not delivered. This has little to do with structure and everything to do with being able to have an effective conversation with someone. In other words, this is relational.

All too often, we see restructures take place to address relational breakdowns. If we are able to distinguish between relational and structural breakdowns then we can find more effective means to address them rather than using the sledgehammer approach of a restructure to ineffectively address all concerns.

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© 2008 Chris Chittenden