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

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