Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Quake Test

In the last month New Zealand has seen some of its biggest earthquake damage in over 80 years. The impact in Christchurch has been significant and many buildings have come down, homes have been ruined, businesses destroyed and many lives changed forever.
Earthquakes are not unusual around the world so it was not a surprise that Murray McCulley, our minister for foreign affairs, spoke to the UN Assembly and mentioned the fact that, compared to many other countries, our structures and infrastructure did not fail as catastrophically as has been seen in other countries.

You might wonder why a change agent would write about earthquakes!

What occurred to me most, in watching the scenes from Christchurch, was how many of the tales told were about the response of the people and the way that they responded to the disaster, managed the disaster, and supported each other after the disaster.
What I saw was another reminder that when the structures fail, the ability to operate is down to the people. What I also saw was that the structures that did not fail had been designed for the conditions that they operated in. They weren’t designed for downtown London or the Chinese countryside. They were designed to work in New Zealand for the conditions that prevail here. They were designed to work for the people that needed to use them. The structure was for the people and not for itself.

It reminded me that in organisations we spend a lot of time on the way we are structured and we spend a lot of time restructuring, but that the structure itself delivers nothing. People do.

Now I am not saying that you shouldn’t care about the structure of the organisation. What I am saying is that your structure is there to pull people together in to groups or teams of common purpose to enable them to easily and effectively work together. It helps define boundaries where boundaries are needed. It should help define relationships so that people understand the connection between roles.
Organisational structure is not real. It is a self imposed concept and like all concepts it is designed to help give meaning and understanding to the people who need to use it.

Therefore the structure is not there for itself it is there for the people. The structure cannot be right or wrong or have a voice (as in the organisation says). It does not create or deliver. It cannot innovate or design or invent.

Structure shouldn’t be defined to ‘give a manager a job’ or to ‘create hierarchies of power’. It shouldn’t be redefined just to remove numbers from the business, nor should it be an alternative performance management tool. I have unfortunately seen it used for all of these and inevitably it doesn’t reap many benefits

Structure should be there to align, group, connect and make efficient work paths. And the unstated word there is people. Structure is there to support people.

The best test of a structure, and its suitability, is whether it supports the people within the conditions that the organisation finds itself.

Perhaps we can call this the ‘Earthquake test’.