Positions and the people in them

A model of organizational change

Note: this was originally written as part of issue 115 of my newsletter, Hit and Miss, but was put into its own post for length and longevity.

A few months back, Sean shared a framework that I often find relevant. I think it’s worth sharing around, so I asked him if I could write it up—he often speaks of one day starting a blog, but that’s yet to materialize. (C’mon, Sean!) Graciously, he gave the all clear.

It’s a model to understand why people seek organizational change. Specifically, why people seek to change the responsibilities associated with a given position. They might try to assign that role more powers (to centralize), or to move those powers into other roles (to decentralize).

There are two questions in this model:

  • Is the person in a position “good” or “bad” at their job?
  • Does the position have many responsibilities (“powerful” or “centralized”) or few (“feeble” or “decentralized”)?

Assessing the first question is quite subjective. “Good” or “bad” by what standard? There’s no right way to measure this, though it probably stems from whether the person in that position is making “good” use of their powers—though this, too, is subjective. As we’ll see, it doesn’t actually matter how this is measured. It’s about who does the measuring.

This works out to a classic 2x2:

  “Good” “Bad”
“Powerful”/“Centralized” Stable Decentralizing tendency
“Feeble”/“Decentralized” Centralizing tendency Stable(ish)

Narrative form explains this well:

  1. Let’s start in the top left of the model. We assume that there’s a “good” person—“Dogooder”—in the position of “Chief Doing Officer”, and that the Chief Doing Officer position is powerful. The organization is stable, initiatives are on course—life is good.
  2. But then life happens, and Dogooder is replaced by a “bad” person, ”Doespoorly”. Chief Doing Officer Doespoorly has lots of power—and this upsets people in the organization, for whatever reason.
  3. Depending on their own positions, these upset people have a few options. They could try to replace Doespoorly, getting a new Chief Doing Officer. But in bureaucratic organizations, it’s sometimes easier to change the structure of the organization than to dislodge a person within it, especially if in a subordinate position. So people agitate for change, focusing on removing the power in Doespoorly’s hands—they try to decentralize, to enfeeble the Chief Doing Officer position. We’re in the upper right of the model.
  4. In decentralizing, the Chief Doing Officer portfolio is split into three. There are Chief Officers of DoingSomeThings, DoingOtherThings, and DoingYetOtherThings. (Sorry for terrible names, trying not to call out any actual types of positions.) Doespoorly becomes the Chief DoingSomeThings Officer, where they don’t do as much damage. The agitators manage to set up a good hiring process, and the Chief DoingOtherThings Officer, Doeswell, is a great hire.
  5. But the Chief DoingOtherThings Officer is constrained by the relative lack of powers in their position. Remember, it’s just a subset of what the Chief Doing Officer used to do. Agitators—maybe the same as before, maybe different—feel that if Doeswell could just have more power, the organization would be so much better off. Now we’re in the bottom left of the model.
  6. The agitators set about consolidating positions, maybe returning to the model of a single Chief Doing Officer. They finagle Doeswell into the role, and we’re back to the top left of the model, to step 1.

From here, a “good” person might replace Doeswell, keeping the status quo. Or a “bad” person appears, kicking off the cycle anew. If, in step 4, the agitators hadn’t managed to hire anybody of note, the organization would be in the bottom right of the model.

Okay, that’s a longwinded thing. Maybe it feels too abstract, but it’s certainly a cycle that Sean and I have observed. Whether or not you agree with or have experienced the particulars, I think we can learn from the assumptions underpinning it:

  • There’s a distinction between positions and the people in them. We shouldn’t ignore either, though bureaucratic thinking encourages focusing on the former. (This is a whole thing in sociology, as my friend O pointed out—I’ll avoid wading in further for now.)
  • Hiring for new positions, at least in the government, is sometimes given more attention/creative leeway than for existing positions. This speaks to a larger malaise around talent management, which could spawn yet more articles.

How might we read this cycle?

  • By one reading, it feels cynical. We’re just morphing our organizational structures because of the people in it, without regard for what’s structurally “ideal”.
  • Another reading might see this as acknowledging and embracing the people within the organization, and then molding it to fit, a sort of practice-informed structural evolution.
  • Yet another reading might see this as power grabbing, which would be fair. But also maybe it’s more nuanced than that. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

I tend to favour “remembering the humans”. By which I mean, we should account for the people in our systems, thinking about what the people in place can contribute to the organization instead of pining over the structurally ideal set of positions. But then again, I don’t know. Yay for thinking!