There is an inherent tension in how a company is structured. Too much bureaucracy and creativity and dynamism are thwarted. Too much flexibility and carte blanche and mistakes start to accumulate. Processes are the answer to ensuring that a certain level of quality is consistently maintained, but too many procedures and we start becoming more like machines. Allowing self-organization and inventiveness to emerge within a business can promote the occurrence of breakthroughs that would have otherwise been impossible, but too loose a structure can invite chaos and angry customers.
The tension is inherent, yet unique to each company. The combination of structure, emergence, and flexibility that best suits an organization resides along a multi-dimensional continuum. Some companies may thrive on a higher dose of freedom, while others require a more balanced mixture. You may create the right blend based on the company’s goals, how its teams work together, and what it produces.
The Best Combination
Even for the same organization, this mix may change as it evolves. A looser organization will probably be more important when the company is a startup, but it will have to include more structure as it starts to process more transactions and grows. Too much of these processes, however, might be a problem. As Erick Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg suggest in How Google Works, processes will always be behind a company’s growth: “The business should always be outrunning the processes, so chaos is right where you want to be.”
Managing this tension is one of the main tasks of an able leader by ensuring that the company is not moving too strongly in any one direction. Whether you are seeking to improve a company’s organization, or you want to allow more freedom, the strategy you select will depend on the situation. For one situation, you may choose to add a process or more structure, while for another, creating clearer lines of communication might be the answer. On the other hand, simply listening or performing safe-to-fail experiments may be the best strategy for allowing organic growth and emergence.
Sometimes, the plan you decide upon may not work as you desired. For instance, you may have unnecessarily bureaucratized a workflow. In that case, you can remove the intervention and try a different strategy. You can always add, remove, and modify to ensure the best balance when you want to move the company in any direction. The tension in the company is not an easy one to manage, and often, experimentation is the only method to discover which direction to move. You can always try something new.
Finding the Balance Ongoingly
Constantly refining is part of the work. As the context around the company changes, and the people within the company evolve, the situation may call for a new blend. Removing what no longer works, such as old processes, and leaving room for new ways of organization to emerge, such as greater autonomy for a great team, are part of the modifications that you will always have to make. Simultaneously, you may find that a great team has been working independently and very well for a long time, but none of its best practices are documented anywhere. This situation may call for greater structure to ensure that knowledge is always part of the company.
There is no right way to manage a company. You and your team are in the perfect position to know what is best for you. Learn from others but find the right blend for you. If something isn’t working, you can always change it and bring a better balance to your organization.
Schmidt, Eric, Jonathan Rosenberg, and Alan Eagle. Google: How Google Works. First edition. New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2014. E-book.