Your org chart is a map. But to what terrain?

January 17, 2021

I've been fascinated with maps since I was small. I credit my parents for giving me an atlas when I was 5, and for having a floor-to-ceiling map of the world in our dining room for most of my childhood. I suspect this played a nontrivial part in my interest in geography and geology, eventually leading me to my concentration in the latter at university.

It should not come as any shock then that when I first learned about Wardley Mapping, I was intrigued. There's a number of excellent videos of Simon Wardley speaking about maps, the origin story, and articles about application of Wardley Maps in a number of contexts. One of his more recent articles about mapping culture, has stuck in my brain for months, and is lately bubbling up in the context of organizational charts.

One of the great things about maps that Simon explains early and often is that they are by definition imperfect. If they were perfect, they would be impractical 1:1 representations. There's a necessary abstraction between map and terrain, and different kinds of maps for different contexts.

During a recent meeting about reorganizing part of our company, I was thinking about the idea of reporting structures and it struck me how an org chart is a kind of map. But what kind of map, and in what contexts is it useful? A number of our team have recently consumed the excellent book Team Topologies by Matthew Skelton and Manuel Pais, so this is top of mind for us. As the authors expand in this article:

The problem with taking the org chart at face value is that we end up trying to architect people as if they were software, neatly keeping their communi­cation within the accepted lines. But people don’t restrict their communications only to those connected lines on the chart. We reach out to whomever we depend on to get work done. We bend the rules when required to achieve our goals. That’s why actual communication lines look quite different from the org chart."

Artifacts of communication travel the hierarchy, while the value of communication travels informal networks, and the actual work is done in still another structure. The authors of Team Topologies reference the work of Niels Pflaeging, author of Organize for Complexity, who outlines 3 different structures within organizations: formal, informal, and value-creation. Anyone who has worked or is working within a hierarchical context has surely dealt with this. Think of the asymmetry of questions like "how many reports do you have?" versus "how many people in your org see you as influential?" (regardless of title or position).

I believe that Simon Wardley's culture mapping provides a hint to designing a better org chart - other layers on what I term the topographic (actual people) and political (positional power) contexts that org charts traditionally map. Where are responsibilities within the org evolving, and where is work approaching automation to the point of eliminating a role? Where is the work that we are (or our industry is) doing undergoing properties of emergence that will redefine the roles we will need tomorrow, next month or next year? Where are the informal networks strengthening and growing in influence over time, and what is their relationship to the work being done?

How can we map the motion of the org chart over time as the evolution of the organism that is our organization in service to our larger purpose?

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Rick Cusick
A sound leader's aim is to open people's hearts -Lao Tzu