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Organisational structure turned upside-down

upside-down organisational structure

I have been thinking a lot lately about organisational structure. For example, why do many organisations have difficulty changing their practices and sustainably improving the quality of their goods or services? I have written before on similar subjects and while I haven’t studied this subject in great depth, I believe there is a fundamental problem with how we build organisations.

Most – perhaps even all – organisations are built from the top down. That is, first we put in place the most senior positions. Senior managers delegate their portfolios to the level of managers below them. Those managers in turn delegate their responsibilities to the level below them and so on.

This approach is entirely logical and ensures lines of delegated responsibility and accountability.

However, this approach also results in a phenomenon called “managing up”. This is where each level of managers works hard to understand their boss’s perspective, agenda and preferences. And then to deliver solutions that work for their boss. The literature on “managing up” is very positive about this approach and, indeed, exhorts middle managers to use it to get ahead in their careers.

I do see a problem though. I have been working in program evaluation and quality improvement for a dozen years. Over that time, I’ve seen what happens at the coalface of organisations as a consequence of “managing up”. Frontline staff are often not listened to or supported as they toil to deliver services. They understand “work as done”, while their managers are trying to deliver outcomes against “work as imagined” to managers higher up the chain.

I believe organisational structures would work much better if they were built from the bottom up, rather than from the top down. That is, if the frontline staff are the starting point and their managers provide the support frontline staff need to do their coalface work. The next level of managers would have the job of supporting and facilitating the work of the managers below them, and so on. In this scenario, the driver for each level of managers is “work as done” by the level below them.

My ideas are not particularly new. There is a theory of leadership called “servant leadership” that has been around since the 1970s that canvasses similar ideas. And I can also see that building organisations from the bottom up would be difficult to do in practice.

Many sectors want to address their quality and quality improvement issues. Perhaps one answer is to rethink organisational structure in general and the role of managers in particular. We now understand the need for greater engagement of frontline staff to achieve sustained and sustainable improvement in frontline practices. Our task is to rethink the structures that have prevented this from happening until now.

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