How to Organize

Organizations exist to coordinate efforts and output. This is always in order to achieve something greater than the sum of the parts.  Every business, group, or unit has an organizational structure.  Most often this is depicted in an “org chart” that mostly only shows the hierarchy of oversight or control.

There is no one ‘right’ way to organize.

Periodically changing an org structure is super important - and - it’s done wrong in almost every business.  Why? Because people start with “what is”, instead of “what should be”.  

Most people come at the problem through the lens of: I’m here now, this is the team, this is what we do; now, lets see if we can do it better.  Everyone does this and they all start from the same place.  It’s completely upside down from how they should go about it.  Moreover, the larger you are, the longer you’ve been at it, the more history you have with the organization, all conspire to keep you doing things the wrong way.

Put aside everything about your current situation.

The people, the structure, everything.  Put it all aside and leave it aside.  Don’t worry, we’ll come back to the “what is” at the end.  But for now, you must put it all aside.  Get it out of your brain completely.  You’ll infect your thinking, and it’s critical that the thinking is pure.

Write it down.

Clear writing = clear thinking.  It’s impossible to clarify, much less share with others, one’s thinking without writing it out, long-form.  Do the work and spend the time to make it clear and concise.  Share the draft with others.  Make them write their edits and improvements into the doc.  I always try to include what I believe and the values I want to reflect.

The following steps must be done, in order.

If you skip a step or do this process out of sequence you will lose the magic and the whole thing gets weaker.

Step 1 - What are you trying to accomplish?

This is the most important piece of any organization structure.  Write the answer to that question as clearly and concisely as possible.  It’s the foundation.  It clarifies everything that comes after it.  Again, you have to put the “what is” aside. Zero-out everything you’re doing today and start fresh.  I think it’s critical to write out the quantitative measures of success once you get to your destination; the essential metrics that prove you’re succeeding at whatever you set out to accomplish.

Step 2 - What functions do you need to accomplish what you wrote above?

Functions are the scaffolding for your eventual organization.  Avoid shorthand like “marketing”.  Instead write out what the function (aim) of marketing is.  I like to both write it out and use a picture to show the functions and how they overlap.  If you’re doing this correctly, this will have several iterations until you get something that looks at least mostly right.

Step 3 - What skills do we need?

Skills.  Not roles. Not titles.  And certainly not specific people.  Clearly define the skills you need.

Step 4 - What roles do we need?

Roles. Not titles, and not specific people.

Step 5 - How should we Organize?

This starts to look more like the traditional org chart everyone is used to.  If you’re doing the exercise correctly this will map to your Functional view in Step 2.  It’s super important not to infect the thinking with specific people just yet.  Stay true to the “what should be” focus of the exercise.

Step 6 - Map the people.

Not everyone you have today will fit into your new model.  That’s expected.  Most of the time I find you need fewer people and less hierarchy than what you may have started with.  I also find that you won’t have the skills you defined in Step 3. That’s a problem you needed to know and only by following this path did you spotlight it.

Done.  Not really.  Now you have to bring others along, inspire the changes, and make some tough decisions.  You’ve written it all down. Share it with others.  Have the conversations.

Other important pieces:

  1. Not all the existing people will fit.

You will surface the need for different skills and roles.  The question you have to ask yourself & the people you need: will/won’t & can/can’t.  Assess whether or not a person can or can't do what is needed, and then will they or won't they. These are tough questions to answer honestly, particularly with a time-constraint lens, and yet decide, you must, to be successful.

  1. Explicitly address incentive systems.

Every org structure has a built-in set of incentive systems.  Some incentives are monetary in the classic sense, the ones I’m referring to are more implicit in the overlaps of responsibilities, etc.  Incentives are a mixture of carrots and sticks. Don’t make the mistake of thinking they’ll take care of themselves, because they will, and probably not in ways you’d expect.

  1. Re-org regularly.

If you can avoid it, re-org no more often than every 12 months as it causes too much turbulence.  Don’t wait more than 24 months to revisit the re-org process as markets, people, and customer expectations change.  These are guidelines to keep things sharp.