Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Informal structures often prove more productive than formal ones

Ad hoc and informal structures often prove to be more productive and efficient than formal ones.

Leading Outside the Lines: How to Mobilize the Informal Organization, Energize Your Team, and Get Better Results 


In just about every organization I've worked for or with, I've repeatedly observed a formal hierarchy in place as well as an unofficial group of people who actually get stuff done. They are, more than not, two disparate groups. The somewhat loose confederation of doers, in my experience, tends to respect the authority of those above them on the corporate food chain, while developing and implementing ways to circumvent and subvert them to git 'er done, regardless and in spite of. Sometimes, it's just a slight variation to the table of organization that allows certain obstacles to be avoided and "impediments to progress'' (to put it politely) to be ignored — while including them in any necessary e-mail threads, of course.

Though the role of the guerrilla squad of achievers is frequently well known within the organizations, they are often officially disregarded. But I've seen situations where CEOs, VPs and directors often bypass protocol to enlist them in key projects, often to the chagrin of their bosses. I've known several of these stealth commandos, and when asked will admit, immodestly, to having been one.

Katzenbach and Khan look at this phenomenon and attempt to demonstrate ways that these ad hoc, informal groups can be mobilized and engaged. They do so by defining formal structures; that's pretty easy. Then they take a shot at informal ones. They write: "The informal isn't as easily defined as the formal, because it does not have the clear structural boundaries that the formal has. Its elements often overlap and don't follow the clean principles of 'mutually exclusive, comprehensively exhaustive' that analytical thinkers prefer. In essence, the informal is the aggregate of organizational elements that primarily influence behavior through emotional means. And, unlike the formal elements, the informal elements of an organization rarely appear as written instructions. Even so, they can still be identified and named.''

They go on to identify the ways these groups form and function and how they might be cultivated. The text is smart, very readable and studious, though informal. Their approach throughout is benign and humanistic rather than imperious and authoritarian, which is the way to go, given the subject matter. There's a nice chapter summary at the end of the book, as well as a fine diagnostic tool to assess your organization and its adaptability.

The only caveat I have about this book is whether or not it's practicable and actionable for the real world. Katzenbach and Khan certainly did their parts, and their own responsibility ends once the book is read. But as with other tomes that advocate and promote genuine change, one always wonders if those who need it the most will heed the advice proffered therein. Still, if their book stimulates discussion and helps those inside the organization take some extra initiative, all will not be for naught.

Originally published in The Miami Herald

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