How do you structure a business so that it functions well?

In the Circle of Impact model that I champion, an effective business structure aligns the Three Dimensions of Leadership – Ideas, Relationships, and Structure – by focusing on the conditions that create effective communication, collaboration, and coordination. These three components form a necessary baseline from which all organizations launch and their growth beyond that is a result of a change in the function of each one:

  • Communication ceases to be a major problem; your message gets out, and work-related issues seem less intractable.
  • Collaboration grows; new ideas emerge as a consequence of improved relationships and the organization changes to accommodate a higher level of engagement and initiative by people.
  • Coordination, though, lags in improvement across departments, remote sites, and programs. Organizational systems experience the highest resistance to adapting to changing circumstances and are always the last to change themselves, draining the optimism that initially rose as communication and collaboration grew.

After a few months or years, coworkers begin to openly express their growing impression of having reached a plateau or the business being in decline.  Right or wrong, the perception that the organization has reached a Transition Point begins to take hold.

Many organizations pursue the easiest things to change. Fresh, inspiring ideas infuse new confidence and motivation in people, impacting how they communicate and collaborate. The jump from one inspiring idea to the next artificially props up people’s emotional commitment to the company and relationships within the organizations. However, this is not sustainable.

The resistance of the organization’s structure to change remains the primary obstacle to a well-functioning, fully aligned organization.

Employees’ widening disconnect and distance from the mission and outcome of an organization is the most basic identifying mark of a structure out of alignment. As indifference grows, the defacto attitude of the workforce becomes the desire to be left alone to do their job so they can get on to what matters in their life. In effect, there is no emotional access point for staff to invest their whole selves in the work they do.

When employees widely experience this scenario in a company, inspiring ideas and motivational team-building programs don’t have a lasting impact. Issues of communication and collaboration surface as symptoms of a structural or systems problem.

Three Assumptions That Point to an Effective Organizational Structure

In my consulting practice, as I analyze organizations I am looking for various intangibles that matter; let’s call them assumptions about what an organizational system should produce:

  • Initiative by employees; personal initiative measured by higher rates of engagement and contribution.
  • Interaction by employees; interaction that is open and collaborative and that transcends organizational barriers to achieve higher levels of efficiency and impact.
  • Impact awareness by employees; employees who can express their own contribution to the organization’s impact as a change that is a difference that matters.

These assumptions are difficult to measure, yet relatively easy to see and evident when they are missing.

  • People not taking initiative
  • Little interaction between people from different parts of the organization
  • Employees show little appreciation for the organization’s mission and impact

How, then, to do you redesign your organizational structures so that you realize a higher level of initiative, interaction, and impact? One way to address this issue is through a strategic organizational redesign that creates an environment of shared responsibility.

What A Shared Responsibility Structure Looks Like

Every organization has a responsibility or accountability structure. In older, traditional hierarchical systems, responsibility resides in varying degrees throughout the organization, but not accountability, which is top down.

A shared responsibility structure creates a shared space of mutual, collaborative, coordinated accountability. When management, staff, the board of directors and other stakeholders have a common ground of shared responsibility, the expectation becomes that each person has the opportunity to contribute their talent, knowledge, and expertise within the limits of their position and role in the organization.

For example, while some members of the management team would not ordinarily work alongside members of the Board of Directors, in this scheme they would. The structure provides a shared space of contribution for impact. This approach lowers the organizational barriers that typically make it hard to create a common ground for work.

A shared responsibility structure’s purpose is not order or standardization, but to align the functions of communication, collaboration, and coordination to maximize impact creation. The organization’s mission, not the structure, drives organizational change.

This shared responsibility approach is currently being developed for an international non-profit organization with constituents in all 50 U.S. states and 20 countries globally. The board is small in number, highly active in collaboration with the staff, and works with a large number of advisors and supporters from around the world who contribute according to their ability.

This organization aims to create an environment where participation is not boring or disconnected from its mission but marked by personal initiative, collaborative interaction, and an organizational environment in which each person has the opportunity to make a difference.

How to Lead in a Shared Responsibility Structure

How does a shared responsibility organizational design work?

When the connected ideas of purpose, mission, values, vision, and impact are well defined and aligned within the structure, the leadership of the organization serves as a facilitator of interaction and contribution. The organizational structure is a shared space for collaboration; therefore, the barriers are low for constituents to lead by capitalizing on their talent and abilities, producing a more highly engaged staff and board.

This kind of structure and leadership must be intentionally designed and developed.  While not a radical departure from the past, at the same time, it is not a logical step forward for most legacy structures that exist today.

Once the C-suite and senior management understand that the future of organizations lays in a shared responsibility model, it will require a change in their own leadership approach. Shared responsibility fosters shared leadership of responsibility. The impact or influence that results from taking personal initiative to create impact defines leadership in this perspective.

How to Transition to a Shared Responsibility Organization

Can legacy organizational structures change to this model of shared responsibility?

I believe they can.

It begins with recognizing that each person in an organization has unrealized potential waiting to be released. Everyone wants to work in an environment that is personally meaningful, socially fulfilling and makes a difference that matters. The first step is figuring out how those three personal goals can become the basis for the contributions of each person.

To do this means that the social structure of organizations must change. You must foster your employees’ network of relationships, both within and outside the business.

For a network to transition into a genuine community requires leadership. It requires people who facilitate and coordinate the interaction that is necessary to build a community of relationships. Conversations within these networks must clarify the shared ideas of purpose and values that are a basis for a shared vision of impact, and a common commitment to share the responsibility for it. Each provides a way for the relationship to transcend superficial connection to one that is meaningful, fulfilling and makes a difference that matters.

Appreciating the importance of the Circle of Impact’s relationship dimension to create the strength and impact of an organization paves the way.  Barriers to interaction and collaboration lower or are removed, enabling people to become more engaged with the purpose and mission of the organization and to do so in tandem with other members of their organizational community.

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