Addressing the shortcomings of the division of labor

Is organizational structure the best solution? 


A recent post I read and shared about the challenges in using the Chief of Staff role in companies brought me back, full circle, to a post I’ve written more than five years/300-posts ago about the VP of Business and People Operations role

I’ve intentionally invited several colleagues holding Chief-of-Staff (CoS) roles in companies to critique Kovacevich’s post, to learn from their collective experience. I learned from those conversations that some of Kovacevich’s arguments can be dismissed as issues with specific implementations of the role, or issues that can exist in all corporate roles and therefore don’t stem from the CoS role definition in particular. Arguments around the lack of clarity in the role’s responsibilities, or the role’s allegiance to their manager rather than the benefit of the company fall in that category. But a few arguments remained standing and salient: 

  1. There is a gap in the organization’s ability to collaborate cross-functionally well that the CoS role is often meant to address. 
  2. The role’s positioning outside of the formal reporting lines makes it more challenging to accomplish #1. 
  3. The label used to describe the role (“CoS”) often adds, rather than removes, ambiguity — also getting in the way of #1. 

The root cause for the gap described in #1 is Conway’s Law — the unfortunate downside of the function-based division of labor on the executive team. The quote from Rich Mironov I included in that post is still one of the most concise and clear ways to describe the phenomena:

Organizations must have some division of labor … [and] every division of labor creates the potential for narrower thinking, boundary skirmishes, and inefficient resource allocation.”

Specifically, in this case, the five core systems that drive business results are owned by everyone and no one at all. 

Creating a role in the organization that owns all or some of those systems attempts to solve those organizational challenges using organizational structure. 

Similar patterns exist with the VP of People role — a role that in the five-systems model is given some authority over the people, incentive, and org structure systems:

  • It does not own its domain to the same extent that the VP of Sales owns sales, or that the VP of Engineering owns engineering. While in those domains meeting the function’s objectives relies 70% on the function and 30% on effective collaboration with other functions, those ratios are inversed in the People function.
  • A big part of that challenge is due to the org structure. Employees report into their functional orgs, not the People org. The People’s org ability to influence their experiences and actions is only secondary to the influence exuded by their organic reporting chains. A person’s manager will always be more influential than the most influential People program. 
  • The label (“People”) doesn’t help. It invites comparisons to other labels (“Sales”, “Engineering”) even though the underlying responsibility is structurally different. 

Where does all of this leave me? With better questions than answers. That’s ok for now. 

Organizations are trying to tackle some of the core shortcomings of their functionally-oriented division of labor using org structure solutions (CoS, VP of People) with minor success at best. 

Is an org structure solution the best way to solve this challenge? 

If so, what are the attributes of an effective org structure solution? How do we avoid some of the pitfalls mentioned above? 

I don’t have good answers to these questions. Yet. I have a hunch that looking at this challenge as a part & whole polarity to be navigated, rather than a solution to be solved can yield exciting insights. 

To be continued… 

Addressing the shortcomings of the division of labor

Structures as scaffoldings / structures as shoes

Reinforcing behavior without dependence 

Photo by Kirill Sharkovski on Unsplash

I’ve written quite a bit about the critical role that the organizational environment, and specifically, its processes and structures play in driving behavior change, and reinforcing the culture

Recently, I came across an interesting edge case that I’m not sure how to solve yet. I hope that a clearer articulation here, and any dialogue that may ensue as a result, may help shed some more light on the shape of the potential solutions. 

It happens when the behavior that we want to reinforce becomes dependent on the structure that we’ve put in place. Let me give a couple of examples. 

  1. Situation: we want our team to take time off to celebrate holidays that are important to them. → Solution: we identify a subset of the holidays that most team members view as important and make them “official company holidays” → Complication: people take the company holidays but are more reluctant to take other holidays off assuming that if they are not company holidays, they are not important enough to justify taking time off for them. 
  2. Situations: we want our team to take time off when they are dealing with distressing events in their lives. → Solution: when events that are broadly distressing take place (let’s say, a national tragedy), we remind and encourage our team to take time off if they need to. → Complication: team members use the company-wide communication as a barometer for which events are distressing enough to justify taking time off. If we haven’t communicated about it, it must not be distressing enough to justify. 

I’m not sure that there’s a broader pattern here, given that the two examples that are more present for me are focused on taking time off work. Or perhaps the complications are not as common as I believe them to be. Nonetheless, these examples raise a question with broader applicability: 

How do we design structures that are less likely to generate behavioral dependency?

The best metaphor that I was able to come up with is the difference between scaffoldings and shoes. Both are structures that we commonly use. Scaffoldings are temporary: when we remove them, the building, in its new form stands freely on its own. Whereas shoes, in some way weaken us. While they allow us to traverse challenging surfaces with more ease, once we remove them, our ability to traverse more standard surfaces on our own diminishes, compared to someone who’s been walking barefoot their entire life. 

Structures as scaffoldings / structures as shoes

Increasing relational productivity

What management *should* be doing

Photo by christie greene on Unsplash

Time to pay down some “writing debt” and cover some good articles I came across last year, that stood the (short) test of time between now and then. Starting with this BCG piece, I made reference to in my 2020 wrap-up

How the lockdown unlocked real work

I have my qualms with some of the framing and word choices. Specifically, the careless use of terms like complexity and complicatedness just because they sound less judgmental than what they’re really trying to describe: bureaucracy. But I digress. 

The core piece of value in the article is its “side box”, which highlights “complementarities” — when one factor of production increases the contribution of the other factor of production to the overall outcome — as a core reason for the existence of organizations in the first place. It then introduces a distinction between two types of complementaries: proximity and relational: 

  • Proximity complementarities — complementaries that accrue directly from physical co-location, such as the scale economies made possible by the steam engine or the assembly line — both requiring grouping people together. The discipline of management developed in this context and the close control of work it made possible. 
  • Relational complementarities — complementarities that accrue from the alignment and coherence of the actual behaviors of each node and the way it increases the contribution of every other node. This is articulated visually in a post I covered a couple of years ago titled “People as Vectors” and more abstractly in “Bounded Specialization”.

Most business models rely on both types of complementarities, but because the former is far more visible, organizations tend to over-rely on it, assuming that proximity will make up for any gaps in the productive content of the relationships. Proximity functions as a misleading proxy for working effectively together.

For example, avoiding the hard work of creating trust and explicit commitments around deliverables, knowing that if anything doesn’t go according to plan, we can just walk down the hall and talk it out. 

The pandemic has abruptly swept away organizations’ ability to (over)rely on proximity. The pace of change prevented organizations from applying a bureaucratic procedural response. Instead, they had to strengthen relational productivity by increasing the degree to which people interact effectively and work together in the service of a collective task. Three levers play a role in this endeavor: leadership, engagement and cooperation. 

Leadership: managers add value by getting people to do what they wouldn’t do spontaneously in the absence of interaction with them. Specifically, by maximizing alignment between the individual’s actions and what the organization as a whole is trying to accomplish: navigating across multiple priorities, and identifying and removing blockers. Tactically, that requires having conversations with a broader set of nodes in the network (not just direct reports) and having those conversations focused on creating clarity around a core set of questions: “What are your current priorities, the things you must accomplish, the battles you must win?”, “What are you worried about?”, “Do you feel like you know what you need to know?”, “If not, do you know who to go to get what you need?”.

Engagement: defined here as the degree and intensity of individuals’ connectedness to the organization and its goals, to the roles they occupy in the organization, and to the tasks they perform. The tactics called out here included anchoring the organization’s day-to-day activities to a higher goal, organizing work around time-limited and iterative sprints — focusing people on the immediate priorities that they can control and completing commitments they’ve made to the team, rather than on the uncertainties they can’t control. 

Cooperation: defined here as the process by which people put their autonomy, initiative, and judgment in the service of a collective purpose or task — which sometimes means compromising their own goals or needs for the greater good. The tactics mentioned here included explicitly building trust among far-flung team members, by giving everyone on the team enough air time, and identifying and proactively managing interdependencies.

The evidence presented for decomposing relational productivity to these three levers was somewhat lacking, and the tactical examples under each seem partial at best. 

Nonetheless, the distinction between proximity and relational complementarities and the interaction between the two is a powerful lens to looking at and making sense of organizational behavior and the initial levers for starting to strengthen relational productivity are a good starting point as any for further exploration down that path. 

Increasing relational productivity

OrgHacking 2020 wrap-up

This is my 6th full year of posting on OrgHacking and continuing my annual tradition of writing an end-of-year wrap-up post (previous reviews: 2019, 2018, 2017: 1 & 2, 2016, 2015). I’m going to stick with last year’s 3-part format in a slightly abbreviated form. 

And what a year it was. Pair the global pandemic that’s been raging since March upending traditional ways of working, with a couple of major life events: starting a new full-time job and getting married — and 2020 became a year of many “firsts”. 

Part 1: 2020 reflection 

At the end of last year, I highlighted org governance and distributing power, value generation (performance) and value allocation (comp), and distributed work as areas of interest for 2020. Those remained top-of-mind for me throughout the year, with the latter in particular becoming a lot more real due to COVID-19. I did not get to just think about them, but also write about them, with the relevant posts captured in the “organization fundamentals” and “distributed work” sections of Part 3. 

It was fascinating to see the “two sides of the same coin” relationship between performance and compensation a lot clearer (the value you generate for the group, and your share of the collective value) and see how they fit in broader frameworks of fundamental challenges of organizations. 

The big a-ha moment around distributed work came from shifting my language from talking about “remote work”, which stands in contrast to “co-located work”, to “distributed work” which is more of a spectrum. Companies start to work in a distributed fashion a lot earlier than they used to (it’s hard to find a 100-person tech company that’s 100% co-located), and while many have hit “peak distributed” during the pandemic, some will stay there, and some will go back to a lower lever of distribution that’ll still be higher than their pre-pandemic level. It highlighted that many of us have been working distributedly for quite a while, but perhaps not in a very skilled way. It also highlighted the role that the human element plays in that dynamic: from the challenge of attempting to collaborate in a way that goes beyond our evolutionary wiring, to the possibility of mitigating the relational biases that we tend to rely on heavily while working co-located. This takes me to intentional community design, but I’ll skip that rabbit hole for now. 

My personal life events (and perhaps pandemic-related fatigue build-up) have impacted my writing in the last couple of months of the year, and I did not stick to my weekly cadence. There are a few pieces of content I came across and did not have the time or mindshare to write about: 

I’m hoping to get back to them at the beginning of the new year, but I’m also planning to hold my intention of writing a weekly post a bit more lightly in 2021. We’ll see how it goes. 

Part 2: 2021 areas of interest 

My 2021 areas of interest seem to be a refinement and evolution of my 2020 themes:

  • Intentional governance/design of productive communities/organizations in general and the value generation (performance)/value distribution (compensation) challenge in particular. 
  • Collective sense-making — an emerging category this year, that I hope to continue to explore further. Most likely, through the work of Dave Snowden and the Cognitive Edge. 
  • Building human connection and addressing human needs in collaborative efforts. I slot some of the more interesting challenges of distributed work into this category and the maturing DEI space which is finally generating some balanced, evidence-based approaches and practices. 

Part 3: 2020 posts by emergent categories 

About mid-year I moved away from the old naming convention of using [] in summary posts. Therefore, original (synthesis) posts are indicated below with an *. 

People practices

Organization fundamentals


Distributed work

Behavior change

Small-group dynamics

Large-group dynamics


Knowledge Management


OrgHacking 2020 wrap-up