Sunday, June 9, 2013

Leading Without an Org Chart

The first organizational chart that most of us encountered was the first grade seating chart. The teacher's desk was at the top of the chart and it was crystal clear who was in charge. Over the years, whether our career path took us into the public, private or non-profit sector we each learned to understand the org chart. It simplified things -- it told us who was in charge and where we fit into the system.

When I started working full-time in the complex civic environment in Northeast Ohio it seemed like everyone wanted an org chart and I spent a lot of time trying to draw one to satisfy this primordial need. But the org charts we drew really looked like relationship maps drawn by folks like Valdis Krebs and Not many people liked the charts because no one was at the top and there were too many organizations on them. And this was just the chart for the complex business development system. If I added the chart for the talent-development system that map got entirely too complex (and the nodes multiplied).

I blamed my lack of drawing skills. But upon reflection, the audience wanted to see a chart that showed who was in charge and who was accountable to whom. Such a chart was impossible to draw because civic environments are complex. No one is in charge, yet nearly everyone must be engaged and connected.

This reality is foreign to us because are accustomed to working in complicated environments, where org charts and hierarchies work relatively well. (But not as well as we think, according to this compelling article by Dave Pollard on the Wirearchy blog.)

Most board members of civic organizations are not used to operating in the complex civic environments where multiple organizations need to collaborate together to achieve the desired change. Complex environments are so foreign and org charts so comforting that many leaders respond to the lack of a chart by insisting that one be created. They try to put organizations on top of each other. They are encouraged when strong organizational leaders eagerly exert control over other organizations at resource allocation time, only to be disappointed when those same leaders justifiably refuse to be held accountable for the actions of those they tried to control.

Creating positive change in complex environments requires leading without an org chart. Thankfully there are plenty of approaches that tell us how to provide such leadership. The Art of Hosting builds off of the many lessons taught by Margaret Wheatley regarding leading in complexity. And the Collective Impact framework identifies the need for a "backbone entity" to bring coordination (but not control) to complex environments.

But the first step is persuading ourselves that we can thrive without an org chart.