An Org Chart in Four Dimensions

There it is. Sitting in your inbox. Once a cycle a new Org Chart arrives. Maybe that cycle is once a year, a quarter or in my case each release. In some way it provides the comfort of imagined order. A belief that information flows gently down from some respected and inspiring parental entity, directing purpose towards some unknown end. In return the outcome of work rises to be judged in glowing terms to be followed by a reward. A world of possible relationships constrained to two dimensions.

I find 2-D Org Charts tend follow the accounting structure and reflect the need to track cost more that anything. People’s places are broken down and bucketed according to where they need to be poked. The analytical mind assuming an organization is the sum of its parts. People are seen as their roles like leaves hanging off an organizational tree, losing color as the seasons of their career pass by until they inevitably fall off.

If only it were that simple.Org

The Third Dimension of Organizations

In my experience of knowledge work and Agile software development, 2-D Org Charts don’t reflect reality. Instead people are constantly moving around making connections, finding their tribe, discovering pockets of purpose. They are more like a hot cup of tea. Liquid in Brownian Motion. The roles exist as tea leaves do in tea. They are an influence but it is the cup of tea that gives the leaves context. However I have never been able to read the tea leaves and predict the outcome of anything, anymore that reading a 2-D Org chart tells how an organization will perform.

I have been working a lot in recent years on the recovery of Agile software projects. I usually come in at some point in the chaos and work towards returning some sense of flow to the system. In these environments it always seems that people relate to others more in terms of how effective those around them are in meeting their needs. In systems with a clear customer there is a greater appreciation of work going that is more directed to meeting the needs of the customer. Other work and behaviors are seen as being in support. This meme of the spectrum of work resonates with me in the Agile contexts I have been involved with:

Value > Flow > Waste

I have found it to be the third dimension to how people organize. Ideally the teams are churning out some notion of value. ScrumMasters or like roles are looking to remove impediments and facilitate flow. Program layers are acting to reduce waste, either by deflecting necessary waste such as contractually obligated documentation (Muda Type 1) away from teams or taking a more systemic view of the operation to finds other forms of waste such as delays and hand-offs between dependent teams (Muda Type 2).

The interpretation of the “greater-than” signs is the thing on the left trumps the thing on the right. Getting rid of waste is a good thing unless it interrupts flow. If you can squeeze more value out then do so at the expense of flow. My observation is that people tend to gravitate to what their unique talents suggest is their strength. In doing so they approach challenges that appeal, their work tends to a more optimal experience. I am not suggesting that one form of work is inherently better than another or that someone doing value add is in some way superior to those working to the right of them. Only that as a system adjusts to focus more on meeting customer needs so the balance of people shifts to the left.

The dynamic becomes more that people to the right become servant leaders to those left of them. When a group cannot meet a need internally then they are likely to look to those on right to be willing to meet that need. People to the right have a greater negative ripple effect to their left if where they are is not where they are predisposed to being.

If only it was that simple.

The Negative Spectrum of Work

In large programs I have worked inevitably there are people who become lost in a Scaled Agile behemoth. Being either ill equipped to adapt to servant-leadership or overwhelmed by the size, they become ineffective at expressing their own needs or finding alignment to the purpose of the organization.

I have seen people look for familiar project roles and responsibilities that provide a stable and safe way to work, devoid of conflict and fellowship. For others it is more the case that a large project does not provide transparency of purpose to which they can align their aspirations. Their performance drops as the program grows in size The phenomenon is sometimes referred to as Social Loafing.

I accidentally found one way to detect this in our developer community. I was looking to inject some form of play into the otherwise dry challenge of improving code quality in the debt ridden legacy code we inherited. I worked with a like minded developer to extend the Continuous Integration Game extension in our  Jenkins build server to score builds not only on success or failure but also in the change in technical debt. Not surprisingly the crafts men and women amongst the coders scored in the positive. Teams that cared about their craft outshone teams that didn’t. Those with limited exposure to XP practices would do more damage than good. After suffering the jeers they would “sharpen their tools” and slide towards the positive. What was unexpected were those that scored 0. In some way they had become lost and found some way to appear busy without producing anything. Too scared to ask, to disengaged to care.

Another pattern I noticed a sort of organizational cognitive dissonance forming as folks with a traditional project management background injected themselves into the program layer of a SAFe project. An unfortunate side effect of drawing the SAFe model in layers with the more abstract work at “the top” and the more specific value produced “at the bottom” is that it was interpreted as a 2-D organization. People began to build out the middle program layer with a command and control mindset. Rather than serving needs, they made demands and started to judge the organization to fits their personal world view. The wave of demands washed over the lost who held their breath and did anything to avoid drowning. It triggered the inevitable context switching waste, destabilizing flow and crashing down on value.

The third dimension on these large endeavours then looks more like:

Value > Flow > Waste > 0 > Harm

If the organization is resilient enough it can recognize the negative spectrum and begin to reduce its impact.

If only it were that simple.

The Customer’s End of the Spectrum

Bob Marshall has suggested elements to the left of Value as part of the The Antimatter Principle. Read the post as I oversimplify with this:

Needs > Emotions > Value > Flow > Waste > 0 > Harm

In commercial projects my true customer has been outside the organization with some proxy role like a product manager or product owner speaking for them. Whether or not what the organization produces meets the need results in a form of play that maybe best described by Peter Drucker:

“The Purpose of a business is to create a Customer”

If the spectrum of work within the organization is aligned with serving the customer’s needs then all is good. The need to create new customers drives the change that morphs the organization. The cup of tea warms itself.

I find in government scenarios the politics of stakeholders overcomes any sense of a customer. The client proxies or stakeholders are no longer pulled into alignment but appear to work against it. Politics creates a different set of needs orthogonal to the stated purpose. Failure to comply creates the negative emotions and feelings of fear that overwhelm the stated purpose. In fact the purpose becomes no more than a series platitudes.

This is the fourth dimension of an organization.The additional dimension cannot be perceived by those operating solely in three dimensions. It amounts to heresy to those stuck in the belief their organization can be represented in two dimensions. Much like the topology of a Klein Bottle, the organization folds in on itself creating an unnatural hole in the work causing purpose to become disengagement. The fold reconnects at the negative end of the spectrum forming a feedback loop of frustration.

Klein Bottle

Klein Bottle

This analogy of dimensions serves no other purpose than to help pose the problem of how to see outside our own firm fixed reality. In studying and practising the ideas of Nonviolent communication introduced by Marshall Rosenberg, I found that empathy is a way to see outside my world into the world of others. I don’t do it well and I don’t do it consistently but when I do I can begin to explore those other dimensions created by the needs of others. Being present in their space confusing and disorienting.

Sometimes when I am lodged in the spectrum, running like a hamster on wheel made from a Möbius strip, it helps to consciously pull my out of the system to reflect on the shape the system is exhibiting as well as the shape it is in. It’s one thing to be aware of the unnatural intersection the forth organizational dimension. It’s another to be a part of unfolding the organizational misalignment so the all are operating in a shared mindset.

With some practice maybe I will manage to grow my empathy to perceive the multiple parallel universes of other’s and share in a hot cup of needs.


Thinking Different Blogs on NVC ~ Bob Marshall

Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life ~ Marshall B. Rosenberg et al.




About guywinterbotham

An Agile Buccaneer navigating the corporate storm
This entry was posted in Agile Anthropology, Build Monitor, Communitas, Play and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to An Org Chart in Four Dimensions

  1. Pingback: Wanted: Corporate Fool | The Agile Buccaneer

Leave a Message in this Bottle

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s