Inverting the Org Chart

“Hierarchies evolve from the lowest level up…The original purpose of
a hierarchy is always to help its originating subsystems do their jobs better.”
Thinking in Systems: A Primer, Donella Meadows

You and your friend Kelly have an idea for an internet application. You dream it could be the next big thing. You’re a code wizard and Kelly’s good at telling a story. You gather enough money to get started, find a couple of like-minded builders, and dive in.

You decide to use Scrum, because that worked pretty well for you in your old shop. Kelly is the obvious choice for Product Owner, and you act as Scrum Master. Both of you still actively write code.

Things start going pretty well. You have enough users to attract investors, and the app starts to expand. As it does, your team of four grows to six, then seven, and then jumps to 12. You have plenty of work, and great talent to do it, but the team is getting too big, so you split into two development teams. One of the team members has a knack for keeping the team focused and engaged with each other, so she takes on the SM role for the other team.

Kelly does okay for a while as PO for both teams, but as the teams start to grow further, it gets to be too much. The two of you barely touch code any more. There are greater dealings with investors, payroll is getting to be a real burden, and there is less and less time for focusing on vision. You decide to hire an office manager to deal with daily overhead. Under Kelly’s mentorship, two new POs will guide the teams. Kelly officially becomes CEO and shifts primary focus to higher-level, longer-term strategy. You become CTO, mentoring the senior members of the teams.

You can imagine how this continues. As you continue to add members to the development teams, you continually need to add people to handle work that you used to be able to spread through the team. In a small organization, people can handle these functions themselves. As you grow, it becomes inefficient to spread those functions across everyone, requiring consolidation of the functions under specific people in new roles.

You didn’t need a CEO and CTO when there were four of you. You may have worn that badge, but it was just your specialty within the team. You only needed to spin off management as its own role when the company grew.  You spun off other things typically referred to as support functions–HR, facilities, IT, administrative assistance.  Is management any less of a support function?  The vision, strategy, and leadership they provide are sexier than the stickies, coffee, and toilet washing handled by other support roles, but they are nonetheless things that the teams need to get their work done.  I call that support.

Put differently: management exists to support the managed. Shouldn’t org charts then look like this?

inverted org chart

Am I just quibbling? A little. But it’s interesting that org chart templates don’t even provide this as an option.  To build the above, I couldn’t use the Visio template, because it assumed that an Executive square had to be above a Director square.  The arrows came out all wrong.  Maybe always looking at the image with the CEO at the top affects our perception?  In the physical world, supporting something is usually associated with holding something up from below.  Looking at the typical org chart, then, who is supporting whom?

One might worry that the inverted pyramid would give management big heads: “I support the whole company!” Well, if they are actually operating from a position of servant leadership and effectively supporting the whole company, then I say they deserve big heads. They also probably deserve the big salaries, because effective servant leadership is a rare skill that takes enormous effort to refine. Regardless, I prefer Atlas-like claims to the image standard org charts promote: monarchy carried on the shoulders of those below.

To be honest, I think the org chart should depart from pyramidal hierarchy altogether to represent the symbiotic organism it is intended to model, but flipping it upside down is a start. If we invert it, what shifts in our mindset?

Note: the later post Re-Organizational Agility discusses one change this might yield.

Update: I completely forgot a very important credit!  The thinking in this post was sparked by the Meadows quote above.  It’s especially embarrassing given that its only correct placement is right at the top of the post.  My apologies for the oversight.

One thought on “Inverting the Org Chart

  1. Pingback: Re-Organizational Agility | Growing Truffles

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