Here’s an interesting—and potentially useful—exercise. Look at the formal organization chart maintained by your firm, company, or institution. These contraptions are usually pyramidal in shape, with the big poo-bah on top connected to minions below by an intricate system of lines and boxes. Org charts purport to establish who supervises whom and how authority is exercised throughout the organization.
Then imagine a chart that captures the realities of how things work, with real people in those boxes. Doubtless, there are some important differences between the two charts.
In reality, there are webs of informal relationships: people who play golf or drink together after work, who gossip or complain over coffee, or who love or loathe one another for rational or irrational reasons. These relationships don’t appear on a formal chart, but they can affect how business is conducted. Sometimes these relationships are constructive, lubricating the flow of ideas and information through a rigid bureaucracy. Sometimes they’re destructive, promoting self-interest or plaintive attitudes, squashing initiatives, or squandering time and talent on internal competitions.
A realistic perspective of org charts might also identify people whose formal titles and positions don’t reflect their actual importance. For example, “go-to” guys are sometimes found in obscure places within the formal structure, but they simply get things done—whatever their titles or job descriptions. That person could be a custodian who knows where things are and goes above and beyond the call of duty to help. Perhaps there’s a super-smart administrative assistant who regularly covers for an ineffective boss, moving paperwork and removing obstacles for others.
These people and others like them found in unexpected places on the formal chart can exercise extraordinary influence. Their support can be critical to success, and their opposition can be lethal.
And, often, there are people—some with exalted titles—that everyone avoids or ignores. They may occupy comfortable sinecures for a variety of good or not so good reasons: nepotism, a boss’ sentimentality or indifference, or perhaps even a fear that they might do some harm if placed elsewhere.
The formal structure depicted in an organization chart and a real-world map of the same organization will surely differ. If the differences are too dramatic or profound, the organization could well experience chaos or dysfunction. But some differences are inevitable—and possibly even healthy.
So, why go through this exercise of comparing a formal org chart with a reality-based one? Because, to function effectively, we must understand an organization as it truly is, including, and especially, its very human qualities. People just don’t perform with mechanical predictability as do parts in a tightly engineered machine. Human organizations are much more complicated, because people are complicated.
Keep that real-world map of your organization in your desk’s upper right-hand drawer. And, when it comes time to promote an idea or solve a vexatious problem, it might guide your strategy.
Eric Gilbertson teaches organizational leadership and constitutional law at Saginaw Valley State University. To comment on this article, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org..