Organization structure, or, Plato never worked at an enterprise
A small chunk from my book in progress.
The first stumble leadership makes is assuming that people will change when they’re told the better, more productive way of operating. That is, that people desire to improve. I think of this as the foundational error of Platonic ontology. If you recall the allegory of the cave, people start off looking at shadows of Truth, of the world, chained up to only look at false images and tricked about the true nature of things. Some kindly man in a loose toga unchains them and leads them out the cave, through a series of epiphanies until they emerge from the cave and discover that there are some ultimate, almost physical Truths that everything else is a reflection, a shadow, a corruption of. And once you realize all this, you’re compelled, you choose to live your life according to these Truths and the morals that follow. It’s a bit like enterprise architecture, really.
The flaw in this thinking is that, once shown the Truth, or merely a better way to create useful software, people will actually change how they behave and operate in a better fashion. In my experience, this isn’t the case at all. Proving that there’s a better way to live, to do software is the easy part. Everyone will nod their head and agree. Actually doing it is the hard part. There’s even a set of laws that describes how this works in IT-driven bureaucracies, Larman’s Laws:
Organizations are implicitly optimized to avoid changing the status quo middle- and first-level manager and “specialist” positions & power structures.
As a corollary to (1), any change initiative will be reduced to redefining or overloading the new terminology to mean basically the same as status quo.
As a corollary to (1), any change initiative will be derided as “purist”, “theoretical”, “revolutionary”, “religion”, and “needing pragmatic customization for local concerns” — which deflects from addressing weaknesses and manager/specialist status quo.
As a corollary to (1), if after changing the change some managers and single-specialists are still displaced, they become “coaches/trainers” for the change, frequently reinforcing (2) and (3).
Culture follows structure.
Go read that one or two more times, and focus in on number two. You’re in that big conference room discussing this new, great way of operating - agile, DevOps, doing product management, whatever you like - and you finish click to the last slide, asking for people’s thoughts. One of the middle-managers, will lean back in their chair - everyone’s been silent, and is now relieved that finally someone other than them is speaking. This reposed person will lightly cross their arms, sort of loudly breath in as if they’re vacuuming up the understanding and acceptance of a humble student from the air in the room. “Well, that sounds pretty good, actually.” You’re delighted! “This is what we’ve been doing, really, for the past 20 years. We just didn’t have a word for it!” It wasn’t understanding they were sucking up into their nose, it was gravitas.
This is the wicked power of humans in a bureaucracy: anything, even the clear need to change the bureaucracy and an obviously different way of operating, can be used to justify the bureaucracy and define the bureaucracy. Even though your organization hasn’t actually released software to production in the past 12 months, hasn’t actually spoken with customers…they’ve somehow been doing agile and DevOps this whole time.
It’s important to be understanding and recall that, at one point, the processes and theories of the current bureaucracy were thought to be revolutionary and an improvement on whatever existed in the before times. However, the legacy bureaucracy you’re now seeking to change has calcified and slowed down It’s taken on that magical property of Larman’s second law: it grows stronger, more calcified with each attempt to change it. Trying to change a bureaucracy by following existing processes is like putting out a fire by throwing more fuel on it.
Let’s look at some tools leadership can use to actually change how people operate.
Relevant to your interests
It’s a Moleskine-like experience. Did Body Cameras Backfire?