Saturday, January 06, 2007

Organizational Breathing

So, I find myself sitting in my office watching the sun set over Seattle and thinking about organizations and how they change over time. It's interesting because I've now been around the proverbial block enough that I can start to see some patterns emerging.

Orgs need to go through a consolidate/diversify cycle to open up gaps that allow the high performing individuals to move up in the organization.

Static organizations tend towards hierarchical, seniority based promotion. This drives out some of your best performers.

It is natural from time to time to need to centralize or decentralize the functions in an organization. There are certain things that are easier to do when you have centralized a function (e.g. standardize process, share best practices, exchange tribal knowledge) and other things that are easier to do when you have decentralized a function (e.g. experiment with new methods, adopt new processes, eliminate old processes). Each of these is valuable in its own time. There's never a "perfect" organization just as there's never a perfect organism. Both organizations and organisms need to change, adapt, grow. At best they are dynamic, living things that need the freedom to change, but also the evolutionary pressure to cull the weak from the herd. That's where organizational breathing comes in.

I thought about this for quite a while when I worked at Expedia. I would often have people in my organization ask me what we were doing with the overall structure of the software development team and what would be next. They wanted to know if we would be reducing the number of independent project teams (centralizing functions like testing for example) or if we would be allowing specific business functions to "spin-off internally" (like making our corporate travel team a separate organization). Which one is right? Where are we going? Didn't we just finish centralizing (or decentralizing) that function? Can't management make up their damn minds?

Didn't you just finish inhaling (or exhaling)? Can't you make up your damn mind and just stick with one?

If we make the organization completely static then let's see what happens.

At first everything seems sane. Just business as usual. Good people get promoted. Bad people get fired (ideally). But occasionally someone makes a mistake. And then the proverbial wild rumpus starts.

Because now you have a manager or a director (or worse yet a VP) that's in over their head. They aren't doing a good job and it is affecting everyone below them. Additionally as that person's manager it may be hard to admit or see that they are in trouble. Heck, they may in fact be very gifted at "managing up" and effectively protected by that skill.

Now because the organization is static, there's no real way to move them "laterally" into a less sensitive position unless you just happen to have one open. In fact you've likely got no other option than to give them the boot because they just are not a good fit for the current position. And this is important, even if they are an otherwise excellent asset for the company overall.

"You have failed me for the final time director. Hssss. Whooosh. Hssss. Whooosh..."

That hissing and whooshing may be the breathing of an upper management despot, or it may be the talent escaping from your company.

And what of the otherwise excellent people who get stuck under great managers?

"Now wait a minute." you say. "What's so bad about being under an excellent manager?"

"Nothing at all." I say. "Provided you don't want to move up in the organization."

Ideally excellent managers tend to bring up excellent employees. So you get a bunch of excellent people reporting to your excellent manager. But in a static organization the excellent people below excellent managers end up fighting among themselves for the one spot (since we're certainly not going to reshuffle the whole org once a year or so) that your excellent manager is occupying. And then in the end you get a bunch of excellent folks leaving because of "politics" when it was really just that the game was rigged for exactly this outcome from the start.

Your excellent manager may end up leaving too since she may get sick of being undermined by the otherwise excellent people she's been training.


So breathe damn it!

Move people around.

Breathe in. Centralize functions (like DBAs or Testing or Program Management) when you want to spread best practices and when you want to do just a couple of LARGE projects. Or when those functions are just getting started in your company (like formal project management).

Breathe out. Scatter people into little pods of developers, testers, PMs, project managers, etc when you want to focus on a specific area of your product (like hotel search results, or better UI for selling cruises).

And each time you do it, just like breathing, go "out with the bad and in with the good." You'll be okay as long as you don't stop doing it.

1 comment:

weaties said...

Damn IT!!! sure seems like we are hyperventilating these days, and are going to be passing out soon.