The Invisible Chain of Command: What it Really Takes to Get Things Done Around Here
“We are moving from a chain of command to a web of connection, from competition to collaboration, from markets to networks and stockholders to stakeholders....” - Anodea Judith
Most people, after they’ve been at a new job for more than a week or so, become acutely aware of both the visible, and invisible, chain of command at their workplaces. The Visible Chain of Command (VCC) is usually easy to spot as it’s frequently found stapled to the side of various “Dilbert Bins’ in the office. It’s called the Org Chart. The Org Chart, an organizational improvement innovation widely adopted during the industrial revolution, lays out in painstaking detail who is in charge of whom and describes the exact path one must take to get things done. Or, at least, that what they tell you sometime during your first week on the job. In reality, we all know that many things at work actually get done via an Invisible Chain of Command (ICC) that bears little resemblance to the VCC. In some cases, the real boss can be someone who works nowhere near the top of the pyramid, and who actually works for whom, can be quite the opposite of the relationships appearing on various formalized flowcharting diagrams. As management consultants, Berlineaton has come into contact with both the VCC and ICC within during, literally, hundreds of organizational improvement assignments over the past 20 years. Here are five things we’ve learned about the ICC in that time, and what it really takes to ‘get things done around here’:
1. Most workplaces are actually populated by tribes, not teams
Seth Godin observed that “a group needs only two things to be a tribe: a shared interest and a way to communicate.” Getting things done at work is therefore more about the strength of the connection and the meaning behind the unified purpose, not the numbers, or who is ‘officially’ in charge. Tribes form around a unified passion and sense of purpose which may transcend any organizational structure artificially imposed from above for the purposes of administrative order or convenience. Therefore, launching into any kind of improvement or change focused intervention may fail if enough time and care is not invested in surfacing these critically important, but often sub-rosa, human networks of passion and shared purpose.
2. Listen to understand
Because communication is such an important feature of getting things done within tribes, they usually develop their own unique methods of communicating. Specific words, phrases, tones and even body language make up a complex tapestry of both verbal and non-verbal workplace communication. Unwittingly, interlopers can therefore easily miscommunicate their intentions because, as noted by Steven Covey, “most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” Listening for understanding can therefore help you understand what is really going on, and what you have to do to get things right. It’s also a great way to pick up some of the most important, and least understood, messages: the things that are not being said.
3. Most people just want the basics
To get things done, most people just need the basics: who, what and by when type stuff. Most importantly, people need to know what has to be done and by when. If you really want to go all out, include the why too. All workplaces are different, of course, but as long as you have the basics covered, most people will indulge you any of your usual complimentary idiosyncratic embellishments (see what I did there? ;) ).
4. Get good at Design Teaming
The VCC was established early on in the industrial revolution to hold mill workers accountable for churning out lots of cheap stuff fast. 90% of workers’ time was spent on the same task, every day, for years. Even though the modern workplace is quite a bit different, many workers still focus the majority of their time on one main line of business. However, with the pace of change accelerating, organizations need to respond with innovative solutions to previously unknown problems that require input from many different parts of the business, all at once. So, these days, problem solving usually means pulling teams together from across the Org Chart to quickly and efficiently designing solutions to complex issues before they take you down. The better you are at this ‘Design Teaming’, the better you will be at getting things done, fast and right.
5. Stop reorganizing, start progressing
Our fixation with the VCC creates the perceived need to reorganize every time we encounter a new task or situation. However, as noted by Charlton Ogburn, “perhaps because we are so good at organizing, we tend … to meet any new situation by reorganizing; and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency and demoralization.” Most people, in most organizations, can quickly realign towards any task regardless of where they sit, or who’s in charge of them, especially now that so much of our work is computer enabled. Given this flexibility, you have the opportunity now to get things done faster, and more effectively, than ever before regardless of the chain of command; visible or otherwise.
Richard Eaton is a co-founding partner of Berlineaton and a senior management consultant with over 20 years’ experience facilitating significant and positive culture shifts within large organizations and complex human systems.