A Guide to Dysfunctional Management and the Evil Workplace
October 13th, 2014 by William

Rearranging the Deck Chairs on the Titanic

The term “Rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic” has always been one of my favorites in describing what most organizations are doing in their efforts to “find an organizational structure that works for them.” The phrase means making well-meaning but negligible adjustments to an endeavor that is doomed to fail or to do something pointless or insignificant that will soon be overtaken by events, or that contributes nothing to the solution of a current problem. The expression goes back at least three decades (the earliest example is from 1975), but its use has picked up sharply during the last few decades as it’s been discovered just how accurate it really is. Remember clichés become clichés because they work.

In 1957 author Charlton Ogburn Jr, (1911 – 1998) wrote the war chronicle, “Merrill’s Marauders: The Truth about an Incredible Adventure.” It appeared in the January 1957 issue of “Harper’s Magazine” and in it he describes his experiences in the Burma Campaign in World War II. In the article he describes a phenomenon that bears a striking resemblance to what’s seen often in business. Ogburn wrote: “We trained hard, but it seemed that every time we were beginning to form up in teams we would be reorganized. I was to learn later in life that we tend to meet any new situation by reorganizing, and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency, and demoralization. During our reorganizations, several commanding officers were tried out on us, which added to the discontinuity.”

The Burma Campaign in the South-East Asian Theatre of World War II was fought primarily between the British and Japan however, the British had support from China and the United States. On the Allied side, the operations in Burma during 1942 and early 1943 were a study of military frustration. However, from December 1943 to November 1944, the strategic balance of the Burma campaign shifted decisively in the Allied favor. Improvements in Allied leadership, training and logistics, together with greater firepower and growing Allied air superiority, gave Allied forces the advantage and ultimate victory.

These “reorganizations” that Ogburn wrote of were undoubtedly carried out by the military command to counter the early frustration through an attempt to make “improvements in Allied leadership.” However, my guess is that training and logistics, together with greater firepower and growing Allied air superiority, actually are what gave Allied forces the advantage and ultimate victory. While the Allied effort in Burma was ultimately successful, the same can’t be said for many reorganizations carried out in your typical business organization.

While organizations can rearrange the deck chairs when doing just about anything, this week I want to talk about how this cliché applies to reorganization–a sometimes frequent occurrence in dysfunctional organizations. Everywhere I’ve ever worked, bar none, I have witnessed this same attempt to solve problems through reorganization. I’ve experienced every conceivable type organizational structure, from deeply hierarchal, to flat and from traditional departmental to matrix–and many hybrids in between. One thing all reorganizations have in common is that, when over, the same sociopath is at the top and the same junior sociopaths can be found in the sycophantic first layer of management. Add to that the fact that the reorganization, in and of itself, does nothing to increase teamwork, dedication, loyalty and the skills of the employees–the business equivalent of training and logistics, greater firepower and air superiority.

One thing to remember is that you can find an example of every conceivable type organizational structure that works well and examples of that same structure not working. The ones that work have one thing in common–a minimally dysfunctional workplace culture as a basis. Failure comes from the fact that most management teams don’t fully understand that the organizational structure doesn’t make the organization successful–the people do, i.e., the culture. If the culture is dysfunctional in a traditional hierarchal structure it will also be dysfunctional when reorganized into a matrix structure, or a flat structure, or whatever structure you choose. The problem is that organizational structure is given too much power in the expectation of success. Behind every successful organization stands a team of employees that work well together and dysfunctional behavior is at a minimum. These then are the organizations that can efficiently turn a vision into a growing business.

In this discussion about organizational structure I’m making the assumption that there’s a management team that actually has a winning vision for growing their business. Without that it completely doesn’t matter what the organization structure looks like. Also when I say that dysfunctional behavior is at a minimum, make no mistake dysfunction effects every organization to varying degrees. This is an unfortunate consequence of normal human behavior.

By “reorganizing,” most organizations are reacting to the truism that management consultant Tom Northup is credited with saying: “All organizations are perfectly designed to get the results they are now getting. If we want different results, they must change the way they do things.” The problem is that “reorganization” is not necessarily “doing things differently,” yet may well be the approach many organizations take in their efforts to “turn things around.” Unfortunately it doesn’t provide the results expected because it completely ignores the basic mechanisms at play in the day-to-day operations of a business. Also don’t forget the organizational structure is really just the mechanism through which power is administered. Add to that the fact that in many cases all the structure represents is a vehicle to identify who will do the performance review of each employee.

To that end, in his article, “9 Ways Great Companies Organize Their Teams for Success,” Kevin O’Connor, cofounder of DoubleClick and CEO of FindTheBest, tells us that: “What it really takes is teams of talented people, organized in ways that truly let them shine.” Unfortunately most management teams attack the task of reorganizing without giving thought to “ways that truly let them (the employees) shine.”

Without getting mired down in a discussion of its failings–I’ve preached many times in this blog of the idiocy of the performance review process–let me note that the mainstay performance review process used in most companies today does little to help identify the ways each employee “can shine.” Thus management really has no road map available to “let each employee shine.” This is because the process is so focused on identifying employee shortfalls that it becomes useless for anything other than contributing to organizational dysfunction–the antithesis of a successful organization.

As I mentioned above, aligning employees around customer needs is one of the keys O’Connor notes when he says that the “Market Trumps Functional Trumps Matrix.” He tells us that organizational structures have to align around markets. In his words, “Aligning employees around markets with a flattened organizational structure increases efficiency, removes gridlock, eliminates conflicting priorities and speeds up the decision-making process in any industry where you’re constantly racing against the clock.” These are all things that most management teams will espouse as their goals yet fail to effectively achieve.

Reorganizing isn’t about organization charts it’s about empowering people to make decisions and actively embracing the self-interest that each employee brings to the table. O’Connor makes a key point in that management “needs to practice strategic planning that focuses on solutions–strategically thinking about what problems to solve, not about revenue projections, profits or other forecasts. If you build a great product that solves a big problem, the numbers will follow.”

Another of O’Connor’s points is that in most organizations “the most obvious solution is often overlooked.” That’s a profound statement in that in last week’s post I talked about that exact problem. It’s called an “anti-pattern.” Recall for an anti-pattern to exist there must first be a commonly used process, structure or pattern of action that despite initially appearing to be an appropriate an effective response to a problem typically has more bad consequences than beneficial results. And second, a good alternative solution (what O’Connor calls “the most obvious solution”) exists that is documented, repeatable and proven to be effective. Many organizations think that they are approaching their problems correctly only to find that their solution (reorganization) has more negative effects than they anticipated.

O’Connor also talks about something I’ve preached before: “forget about skills when hiring.” You can always teach skills, but you can’t teach smart. Don’t hire employees based on their current skills; hire people who have raw intelligence who will learn quickly on the job.

So if you’re going to reorganize–do it for the right reasons–to flatten the organizational structure, increase efficiency, remove gridlock, eliminate conflicting priorities and speed up the decision-making process. Anything else is just like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.


2 Responses to “Rearranging the Deck Chairs on the Titanic”
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