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The Source of Organizational Dysfunction, Revealed!

What can city design show us about the inherent organizational dysfunction in large companies? Plenty, if you know where to look. Eric J. McNulty, director of research at the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative, discusses in this article the findings of another article written fifty years ago. The article is called “A City Is Not a Tree” and describes how cities that are designed to be efficient often are in fact less efficient than cities that grow organically. The author—Christopher Alexander—describes the leaves and branches of a tree to illustrate his point: the method of organization (in this case, referred to in the manner of a tree) has areas that are connected to all other areas by one or, at most, a few other parts.

These organizational trees look great on paper, as McNulty says, because they seem to exude efficiency. However, they very rarely do. Point in fact, most organizations (no matter how structured) still operate with some overlap and informal structure—something Alexander called “semi-lattice structure.” As McNulty explains, this happens naturally and can hamper the organizational structure of any group:

We design our organizations as trees, but in reality, they are semi-lattices and function accordingly despite our best intentions with reorganizations, matrix reporting structures, and all the other attempts to regulate and standardize interactions at work. Alexander cited brain research that showed the human mind simply can’t grasp all of the complexity of a semi-lattice arrangement in a single design exercise. Our brains evolved to simplify complexity in order to identify threats in the environment. We can’t design organizations that formally incorporate all their complexity.

So if this informal, potentially dysfunctional system is bound to occur, how do executives address it? McNulty suggests creating as few rules as absolutely necessary—instead create clarity in purpose, in values, and in performance. Creating clarity in these areas will help your organization have a clear path into what needs to be done.

Read the full article here:

About Eric Anderson

Eric Anderson is a staff writer for CAI's Accelerating IT Success. He is an intern at Computer Aid Inc., pursuing his master's degree in communications at Penn State University.

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