Picture an organisation chart.
Chances are it looked something like the one here.
Some are prettier, some more unwieldy, some flatter, some impossibly dense with interlocks and dotted lines. One thing they all have in common is that they are “vertical”. Even for so called “horizontal” organisations it’s vertical, just a lot less tall. When something is accepted as the norm, it’s always wise to question orthodoxy and explore better ways of perceiving our organisation.
Clear messages can be drawn from the org chart in the current form: it represents power, seniority. It shows how the pieces join to form the whole, how the cogs join to form the machine. But there is also much lost. When the organisation is understood as a vertical structure the language surrounding change is telling: change is ‘cascaded’. This feels like the natural order of things, like water pouring down over rocks, gravity. Which makes it troubling to intuitively perceive any form of contribution from those at the “bottom”. What is our metaphor for contributions that must overcome the natural order of things to be heard? Input that must defy gravity? Don’t underestimate the power of the vocabulary we use and the imagery it prompts, it both betrays the perception of those delivering the message as well signalling to the recipient our expectation of their role. What is the recipient of a “cascade” to do? Accept the downpour, move out the way or try to prevent the torrent?
If we turn the chart onto its left side, rotate it 90 degrees counter-clockwise, we see a different model. This is not a lesson in humility for leaders, nor a cosmetic trick to pay lip service to equality. Indeed, viewing the organisation differently will not address equality in an organisation – though it couldn’t hurt – but it does allow us to have a smarter conversation. We understand the engagement that’s required, with two groups of people that bring needed perspectives to the table. Those on the left, by virtue of their role and accountability, have more insight into the needed strategy, the far and near environment, shareholder perception. Those on the right understand the realities of execution, what works, what delights customers, what it actually takes to make the dream real. Change is not a cascade, it is a conversation.
The conversation is one where both groups move towards understanding the other’s perspective and so link ambition to reality, join aspiration to execution. Failure to hear the voices of those on the left brings a lack of focus and value; not hearing those on the right brings a lack of success. Even with a true “burning platform” the conversation brings understanding of the risks of execution providing executives with real information on which to base strategic decisions. It’s not feedback on a decision, it’s the receiving of wisdom from those who know their job.
My advice to any change practitioner witnessing the design of a blueprint and hoping to “cascade” the change, who is on the lookout for “resistance” to this natural flow: flip the org-chart on its left, understand how you can start a real conversation to gain value from those on both sides of the chart.