Organisational anchors

Right now we can say that all companies are reorganising departments, evolving roles and structures or redirecting projects (or all of them at the same time). While it is great to assume as business as usual a state of continuous iteration, where nothing is set in stone and everything is evolutionary, the truth is that it is essential that there is a coherence that acts as an organisational anchor. This organisational anchor sustains the business model at the same time that allows for the generation of new, more flexible dynamics that adapt to changing scenarios. This is indeed the main challenge for any organisation, whatever its size and sector: to evolve from consistency. And the key to doing so is not a matter of methodology or tools but a matter of narrative and anchors.

If we look back, we will see that the 20th century, with its productive society model, taught us to design organisations thinking in terms of functions and performance (generating the famous silos). According to this approach, roles (or “positions”, as we would say back then) were designed based on their tasks (instead of based on the contribution of the role), departments were designed based on their functions and activities (instead of based on the “why” and “what for” they really existed) and projects were designed based on the deliverable they had to produce and the methodology to be followed (instead of based on the benefit that this deliverable had to generate for the end user of the project). “What” was the very meaning for everything.

In the year 2023 we live in a scenario that is right the opposite of the 20th century: every three months a new tool appears automating something, a new need in the market that requires a change in the product portfolio arises, a new conflict that generates a supply or marketing challenge strikes or a new social behaviour that provokes a demand that did not exist before pops up. This gives rise to new scenarios that imply changes in organisations at the level of roles, departments, projects and/or business models. And here lies the trap of the 20th century model, the burden of which we are still carrying today: roles, departments and projects are still formulated from the “what”, not from the “why” or the “what for”, which generates tremendous dysfunctions when the situation forces us to evolve. If people define their role from their tasks, their role becomes empty of content as soon as their task is automated or outsourced (for example, if a receptionist in a hotel is more oriented towards executing processes than welcoming the client, a check-in kiosk or online check-in will replace him/her). If departments are limited to their function, they can disappear as soon as a tool is found that executes that function without error or a company that does it at a lower price (for example, a finance department that is limited to publishing reports and generating alerts instead of coaching the organisation to understand the KPIs and use them as a basis for creating actionable strategies will be replaced by any Artificial Intelligence in a few years). If projects are lived from the deliverable they produce (the typical case of those endless software integrations where everyone works for the deliverable without knowing exactly what benefit it brings), they end up being projects where, once finished, everyone looks at each other saying: “What now?”. 

In other words, the 21st century constantly generates new scenarios that ask for continuous organisational evolutions. It is the sign of the times. An organisation cannot evolve in a coherent and consistent way if people, departments and projects continue to be designed from the “what”, because the “what” changes every day, just like the scenario. To evolve, reorganise or redirect in a meaningful way, it is essential to first ask “why” and “what for”, because that is where the essence of a role, a department or a project lies. We can call it value proposition, purpose, objective or benefit, but we will always be talking about the same thing: what does my role, my department or my project contribute to? We will see that the answer is not tasks, but the real meaning of what we do. And that the tasks and processes, which change according to the scenario, must be at the service of that value proposition and not the other way around.

So the starting point of a reorganisation is not to start redistributing tasks or to start moving boxes around in an organisational chart. Nor is it just to analyse tasks to see if they are being done in duplicate. The very starting point is to see the why and what for for each role, department, team and project. From there, we can start to build the rest, which includes defining the list of tasks, tools and processes (“what”). The “what” will change, depending on the situation, but the “why” and the “what for” will define the anchor concept that will give consistency and coherence to the new tasks, activities and functions that arise and that will allow us to evolve in a meaningful way.

It is essential to understand that the “what” is volatile, random and depends on what is going on out there. The “why” and “what for”, on the other hand, are intrinsic and define our individual and collective value proposition, which cannot be automated or outsourced, and which marks the essence of how we contribute to the ecosystem we call organisation.

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