You can’t manage the zebra without structure.
Without a good structure work can’t get done, communication fails and organisations get ineffective.
The importance of structure can’t be overemphasised. If you run a project, if you manage an organisation or if you simply want to communicate in a way that your audience gets your point, don’t following the basic rules of structure won’t let you achieve your target.
Why structure is important?
Basically structure helps us to understand and remember things. Our brains can process structured information up to 43% better than unstructured information (Abrahams, 2013, pp. 54).
This means by simply improving the structure of your communication you are almost doubling the likelihood of being understood. I will give an eye-opening example of what’s meant by this, a bit more down the line in this post.
The second argument for good structure is the ability to organise work, it applies the same to small teams as well as to huge corporations. Let me take you on a thought experiment.
What is good structure?
Assume I would like to provide you with a gift 🙂
Imagine that I make you head of a business. A complete business, with employees, with location, with all the tools, equipment and inventory you need to run it successfully. Your new business!
Imagine further that the only thing I ask you to do is to define your business organisation, I want you to paint your org-chart. To make it easier I want you to simply define the first level of your direct reports.
As the general manager you are about to define the “areas” reporting to you.
Now the last bit of information.
The business you have been granted is not any business, it’s a ZOO.
You are general manager of a Zoo, so how do you organise it?
Managing the zebra
When asking this question in class, the response typically varies from the type of course I’m teaching. In a class of operational economics the first answer that comes is most likely “FUNCTIONAL”. We can organise the Zoo by functions.
This is a fully correct answer, thus the FUNCTIONAL Zoo might look like this:
You have Sales, Animal Care, Finance, Operations, HR and in my opinion this is great, this organisation can work effectively, good job.
Next question: Can we organise it in a different manner? The next proposal I often get is to organise the Zoo by “GEOGRAPHIES”, by the origins continents of the animals.
Also this is perfectly fine and actually very common in real life. So your Zoo organised by GEOGRAPHIES might look like this:
Also this way of structuring the organisation is great, clear and precise.
Can you think of more alternatives?
Usually the 3rd answer I get is to organise by “TYPE OF ANIMAL”, by mammals, birds, reptiles and so on. A structure by TYPE OF ANIMAL will give the following picture:
Also this organisational structure is fine, no issues.
Summing up we have learned that there are multiple ways to organise a business.
All of them can work well and which one you prefer is mostly up to individual preference.
The reason for all three forms of structure being fine is that they follow a principle.
They are mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive – called MECE.
Sounds complex? It isn’t, let me explain.
All three alternatives provide you with an organisation in which by its structure it clear who is accountable, which team does what and how work is organised.
Breaking the MECE principle
Now let’s see what happens if we break the MECE principle.
What about if I suggest you the following structure:
What about organising your zoo by Sales, Animal Care, America and Birds?
Your first line of direct repots is composed by a head of sales, a head of animal care, a head of america and a head of birds. Totally fine, or?
NO? Why not?
Why do you intuitively get to the conclusion that this organisation is pure BULLSH**.
Let’s think about, who in this organisation is responsible for Finance?
Or who is in charge for African Amphibia? Not that easy? hmm…
Or what about American Animals, who in this marvellous organisation is taking care about American mammals? The head of Animal care? The director of the America division? Sales?
I think you get my point 🙂
No overlaps and completeness
This organisation is not mutually exclusive and not collectively exhaustive. Or in other words, this structure is not free of overlaps and by far it’s not fully complete.
This is the very simple rule for good structure: No overlaps and completeness.
Funnily I have seen many organisations which have such a bad structure that you won’t believe it. With unclear structure it just gets more complicated for employees to get their job done. Who’s accountable for what, who can take which decision, to whom do I need to talk to agree on something, structure is the key to get this clear.
To achieve the “no overlaps” rule and to avoid organisational chaos, you need to ensure that the logical groups in which you define the structure are “of the same nature”. You can’t mix at the same level “Animal Care” with “America”. The completeness on the other way is often way harder to achieve, especially at the start of building a structure.
Starting a project organisation
Assume you are in the process of defining a project organisation. We will cover the only three logical types of project organisation in a future post, but for now think purely on the structure.
At the start of a project you most likely don’t know precisely all the tasks which need to be performed to achieve final project success. Depending on your experience in what the content of the project is about, you might have more or less clarity on what “work packages” are in front of you.
Nevertheless it is key to start. You can’t wait to get into execution. Completing the theoretical exercise of trying to logically elaborate each possible task in the project, would simply take you years of work with no tangible progress. And to my experience it won’t be complete anyhow, 2 days into the project you will discover something nobody ever thought about.
So how to start? Well, you start by defining a best possible structure with the knowledge you have right now. And by best possible structure I mean that you define clear and distinct work packages, that you can assign to the different members of your project team. Than you just start and keep on adjusting the structure while executing. Interestingly as you move on, things get clearer and your structure gets more complete. The structure even helps you on identifying potentials gaps.
The Mendeleev concept
We all know the table of chemical elements first discovered and published by Dmitri Mendeleev in 1896. At least we weakly remember our time at school in chemistry class where this got told 🙂
Mendeleev understood that in nature all chemical elements follow a sequence and can be organised by the number of protons in their atom-nucleus. By writing down the chemical structure something interesting happened, Mendeleyev was able to foresee new elements. At his time only 63 of today’s 118 chemical elements were known. (Dmitri Mendeleev, accessed 16.02.2020, Wikipedia)
The structure told him where to search. It allowed to identify relationships between the various element properties and it allowed him to predict undiscovered elements. He even was able to predict the properties of the unidentified elements that were expected to fill gaps within the table.
In other words, he was able to clearly see the “holes” in the so far known organisation of elements, as the structure told him where something was missing. That’s what good structure can do, it can help you to identify where something might be missing or wrongly placed.
Structure in communication
The last element of structure I want to talk about is communication. I will use a simple beautiful and clear example of the book The Pyramid Principle written by Barbara Minto in 1978. Minto, a McKinsey alumni, developed the concept during her 10 years at the renowned consultancy.
Imagine you’re in a business situation where someone approaches you with an urgent request. Please read the message and try to understand the given information:
“Sorry for interrupting you, but John Collins just telephoned to say that he can’t make the meeting at 3:00. Hal Johnson says he doesn’t mind taking it later, or even tomorrow, but not before 10:30, and Don Clifford’s secretary says that Clifford won’t return from Frankfurt until tomorrow, late. The conference room is booked tomorrow, but free Thursday. Thursday at 11:00 looks to be a good time. Is that OK for you?” (Minto, 2002, p. 3)
This is the way most people communicate. Hard to understand, full of irrelevant information.
Now let’s see the magic that structure can do to communication:
“Sorry for interrupting you, but could we reschedule today’s meeting to Thursday at 11:00? This would be more convenient for Collins and Johnson, and would also permit Clifford to be present.” (Minto, 2002, p. 3)
Magic, isn’t it 🙂
It’s just a simple example to illustrate the reasoning of why structure helps. Start with the conclusion first, only then (if at all needed) provide the underlying arguments which brought you to the conclusion. The structure of arguments should of course follow the MECE principle.
First tell the time, then explain the clock
The already mentioned Matt Abrahams once famously pointed out: “First tell the time, then explain how the clock is working.” To my experience many people very often communicate in the oposite way.
First they try to provide you all the reasoning and arguments they have thought of, and only then, sometimes minutes later, they provide you with the conclusion they distilled out of all that. Remember Abrahams, don’t do that. First the time, then the clock. Much easier to follow.
Given this illustration, think on what structure can do to complex communication, like a comprehensive concept document or an important presentation. If you want to get your message across you need to apply structure. The better the structure, the better the message gets understood.
Applying it to Management
In my experience one of the hardest things to start any kind of change, is how to slice the overwhelming number of things which need to be done, into reasonable work packages. A member of my team once told me, starting a project from zero is like staring at a blank piece of paper. Where to start? What do we do first? Whom and what skills do we need?
When the bus arrives
In my classes I often use the metaphor of a bus of people.
Imagine you are a project manager starting a project. Me being the sponsor of this project.
As this project is to maximum importance for me, I provide you with a ton of resources.
I personally convince each and everybody to support the project and I drive around with my bus collecting every helping-hand I can find.
Imagine now further that you are sitting at your desk staring at the famous blank piece of paper, not having yet been able to define the structure of your project.
At exactly this this very moment I arrive with my bus. I get out of the bus and I proudly present you everyone of the 100 person project team I just handpicked for our project.
Then I leave you, convinced that I have done all I can to make you successful, being convinced that with this enormous amount of resources the project will accelerate immediately into speed of light velocity.
What will happen? NOTHING WILL HAPPEN!
If you have no structure the 100 persons will not be able to start working at all. Without a structure, without work packages, without any kind of organisation, those motivated well skilled 100 people are almost useless.
It’s structure that allows collaboration to start. It’s structure that allows communication to be clear and understandable. It’s structure that will avoid your Zoo turning into a nightmare.
Help the Zebra, you can’t manage the Zebra without structure.