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Rule #2: Build an effective organization

Rule #2: Build an effective organization.  Like Rule #1, this one sounds deceptively simple.  Too many businesses, though, have broken organizations, and suffer because of it.  Sometimes those organizations were designed incorrectly to begin with.  More often than not, though, they’ve just worn out.   By that I mean that the conditions that caused the organization to be created in the first place have changed, and the company hasn’t evolved its organizational model to match.  In my experience, most organizations are worn out within 18 to 24 months of their original design.  That’s because, if you’re planning properly (see Rule #1), you’re planning on a three year horizon, but you can really only see clearly for 12 to 18 months down the road.

You may suspect that your organization is getting a little threadbare.  The telltale signs? Missed objectives, and friction amongst the organization’s members and between it and other groups in the company.  People don’t really know what they should be doing, and often think that what they should be doing is what someone else is already doing. The higher ups are jockeying for more responsibility, sometimes at the expense of their peers.  The underlings are confused about what to do next, and some things are falling through the cracks.  It’s time for a reorg!

When you design an organization, the two key mappings are objectives and budgets.  As the manager, you have to make sure that your group is doing work that maps to the corporations objectives (see Rule #1 again!), and that it has the resources to deliver, whether that’s people, money, facilities, or equipment.  It’s a fairly blunt tool, but upper management will allocate resources on the basis of where they see the company’s objectives as a whole mapping, and then it’s your objective to take the objectives mapped to your group, and deliver.

The other half of having an effective organization is culture.  When the gaps appear, when your organization structure is getting a little moth-eaten, corporate culture can help to bridge the gaps.  You can’t just mandate it, unfortunately. Corporate culture is something you have to live and breathe.

There are a few things you can do, however, to foster an effective environment.

(1)   Set information free. Demand that everyone communicate effectively.  When you go to visit a customer, write a trip report with the action items and email it to everyone interested – not just those with actions.  When you run a software development project, write a weekly status report, including current bug counts and slippages, and email it to everyone.  At month and quarter end, hold a financial review and invite everyone in the company, so you all know what’s happening.

Information is power.  Those who hoard information are trying to artificially create an advantage for themselves.  No company, big or small, should tolerate the blatant power grab that information hoarding represents.

(2)   Hold people accountable for their objectives (remember those SMART objectives from Rule #1?), and reward them for achieving them.  You must require that people tell you what they plan to do, and then do what was planned. This has two effects: it leads to more realistic objectives, and better management to corporate objectives.  Objective setting is a wasted exercise otherwise.

(3)   Empower your teams, and require failure. The manager’s job is to remove barriers and empower his or her people to excel.  Empowered individuals have a downside, though.  When people push the limits of their abilities sometimes they fail.  That’s also when people learn the most.  As a manager, to get the most from your people, you need to demand that they push themselves, and be supportive when they fail.  Unless, of course, you enjoy working with an organization of corporate milquetoasts.  If people aren’t failing some of the time, then they aren’t trying hard enough.

At Microsoft we also had two additional unwritten rules:

(1)   Cope, don’t bitch. In other words, sometimes you won’t have the people or money to deliver against an objective, but you know you still need to do it to be successful.  Cope.  Work the extra time, call in the favours, and figure out what you can chop from somewhere else to deliver on this essential item.  The results are what count, not how you got there.

(2)   Lose the arrogance. The company didn’t hire stupid people.  Conversely, you don’t know everything either – nobody in the company knows all the answers.  Answer the “stupid” questions thoughtfully when you’re asked. If you’re the one asking, don’t be afraid.  And if the question being asked of you sounds as if it might be arrogant or demeaning, take a deep breath, and remember that sometimes a question is just a question.

That’s it.  Map your organization to corporate objectives and budgets, plan to reorg every 18 to 24 months, and bridge the gaps with empowered, communicating and risk taking people.

Need help with your organization?  Drop me a line at alecs@exmsft.com.

During Alec’s time at Microsoft he lived through no less than 8 minor and 3 major reorganizations, and managed three teams of people.  While at QNX, Alec reorganized and rebuilt the marketing team into a model empowered, communicating, (coping) and accountable organization.