There can be few work scenarios more likely to set the pulse racing than the prospect of leading a new team. You can prepare in many ways, but one of the best insights into team dynamics and culture comes from the the humble organisational structure chart.

One of the most ubiquitous management tools, yet it never ceases to amaze me just how many clues it yields for the challenges that lie ahead.

Org design and cultural change are a long way from my area of expertise. The thinking continues to evolve around optimal design with a lot of focus currently on Cross-Functional Team Based models. However, having innocently stumbled into a cultural minefield on more than one occasion, I thought I would share a checklist of some of the lessons I have learned over the last few years. 

But First …

Have a look at the example below and see whether you can spot any potential traps? 

20 Hidden Secrets

To unveil the secrets there’s an obvious first step: ask to see a copy of the structure chart before you start your new job! Once you have asked the question, the checklist below may provide some insight into precisely what you have got yourself into.

  1. Is there a structure chart? In smaller teams, where everyone knows everyone else and everyone is very clear about who does what, not having a formal, documented structure chart may be a sign of a healthy team i.e. no one in the team feels the need for it. In my experience, however, this is rarely the case. The structure chart is a critical communication tool, even it is a cartoon or screen full of Avatars, clarifying who does what, how many people there are in the team, how work is organised, how the team is expected to interact and how matters should be escalated. If it’s not written down, this usually masks a wide variety of team issues.
  2. How long does it take to get access? From the time you ask to see the structure chart, how long it takes for you to receive a copy or access to an online version, will provide a number of clues. A delayed response may hint at a level of bureaucracy i.e. the sender needs to get permission to share, or a lack of transparency or that the team are scrambling to pull one together. 
  3. Is it current? When was it last updated? Many structure charts are out of date and do not reflect the current make-up of the team, because people move into new roles, leave the organisation, take long-term career breaks. So, it is a good idea to ask how often it is updated and when it was last updated.  A dated chart and the current situation can tell a completely different story.
  4. What is the format of the structure chart? Is it paper based, file based or online? This will present clues in terms of the overall technology environment to expect. 
  5. What is the tone? Is it serious and formal or is it light and jokey? I’ve seen charts depicting the team as Avatars, others as characters in a comic book or cartoon sketches of the team and most commonly as the traditional chain-of-command structure – all of which say something about the culture of the team. 
  6. Does it provide the role title? Do the role titles help explain what an individual does – some organisations have obscure role titles, or role titles designed to impress but not necessarily reflect what the role is responsible for? 
  7. Are there embedded hierarchies? Do people doing similar roles have the same role titles? The chart may show one hierarchy, but the role title infer another, embedded within an organisational level e.g. Analyst and Senior Analyst both reporting to the same manager.
  8. Does it include the names of the people within the team? It is important to design a structure around the required roles to fulfil the objectives of the team, rather than around the skills and attributes of the people within the team. A chart that doesn’t include the names of the team usually infers either a high staff turnover or a value statement (or lack of value) perceived by the leader of the people actually running the team. 
  9. How formal are the names? Where names are included, the way the name is written can indicate the degree of formality e.g. does it just have the given name (Sam, for instance), a nickname or the full name? Is it given name first then family name (very formal) or the other way around? (Obviously, the latter also depends on local or organisational and culturally sensitive ways of addressing individuals.) 
  10. Are there indications of qualifications? Does the individual’s name show their qualifications e.g. B. Com, MBA, Dip. Eng. or their title e.g. Prof., Dr. etc. , this may indicate that the organisation values formal qualifications highly.
  11. Are role grades clear? Again, this can help explain particular team behaviour and dynamics around implied seniority, even though two individuals may share the same leader. Where there is a wide span of grades, it will also suggest the complexity of managing the team. Managing a team of roughly equal maturity, seniority, role size and scope is far easier than one where these attributes vary widely. One other observation here is the type of grade hierarchy – is it quite simple or broken down to a very fine level. Organisations that have many grade levels and sub-levels tend to be bureaucratic and creating a flexible workforce is quite difficult. If Priyanka takes a 3 month career break and Sid was offered the opportunity to fill the role, he may resist as the grade is lower (even thought the title suggests the role is more important than his current role.)
  12. Does it list everyone or just a subset of people in the team? This also hints at who is considered to be important and who less so. For example, support teams may be left off even though the rest of the team may be dependent on them.
  13. What shape is it? Some teams operate within a traditional, functional structure, others as a matrix, where each team member has at least two line managers, others as a team based structure and others as a network. Matrix organisations are notoriously difficult to work in and require a degree of maturity from both the matrix leaders and the employee. Issues of who sets priorities, how to deal with conflict, even simple things like double booking team meetings, can make for a stressful workplace.
  14. What does it look like? Are the boxes representing peers all at the same level? Some charts infer seniority and hierarchy by placing roles, which report to the same leader, in boxes that are slightly higher or lower, to subtly highlight status that neither the role grade or title imply. Another way to imply seniority is to increase or reduce the size of some boxes.
  15. Are the lines joining the boxes consistent? Use of “hard” lines and “dotted” lines is very common in matrix organisations, to show who has the real power (the hard line) in the relationship. A dotted line responsibility for team members, who are co-located with the hard-line leader but not the matrix manager, may be a difficult relationship to manage.
  16. How many vacancies are there? A lot of vacancies can suggest low team morale but can also indicate organisational policies e.g. a recruitment freeze. it is important to understand the reason why the vacancies exist. Taking over a team that is significantly understaffed when a recruitment freeze is in effect, is extraordinarily challenging.
  17. How diverse is the team? Is there a heavy gender or ethnic skew (difficult to tell sometimes, but the name of the individuals on the chart may hint at a bias. It is important to understand why the bias exists and the implications. I can’t recall working with a team where increasing diversity hasn’t improved the performance. 
  18. How many team members are direct reports? The “right” number depends on the nature of the work. Harold Koonz conducted an interesting piece of research on this topic featured in the Journal of Management Studies in October 1966 – “Making Theory Operational: The Span of Management”. It’s quite old now but the ideas are still relevant. 
  19. Are the reporting spans consistent? Lopsided teams may create a power imbalance, for example if a manager has many direct reports but another manager has only one or two.
  20. Do charts for different teams look and feel the same? Where there are multiple teams making up your overall team, inconsistently drawn structure charts may highlight less than optimal consistency and standardisation on a broader basis, and reflect that the teams are not working closely.

Now go back to the example and have another go.

Good luck with the new team!

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