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Disconnecting the dots

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Once upon a time I had a client that had five semi-autonomous LoBs (Lines of Business for the acronym challenged).

Each LoB had its own CIO who reported to its CEO. The Corporate CIO, who reported to the enterprise CEO, made six.

The corporate CIO owned the company’s data centers, the use of which was charged back to the LoB CIOs, making the latter the former’s customers, by definition. The corporate CIO also owned enterprise architecture, leading the LoB CIOs to report to him on a dotted-line basis.

Yes, that’s right: The corporate CIO’s customers reported to him.

Which leads to this conclusion about organizational charts: There might not be any such thing as a perfect one, a point we’ve explored over the past couple of weeks, but there is such a thing as an org chart that’s more imperfect than it has to be.

Org charts that rely excessively on dotted-line reporting relationships are in the forefront.

Start here: Org charts, before they accomplish anything else, depict delegated responsibilities. If, for example, the org chart has a Chief Revenue Officer, to whom a VP of Sales and VP of Marketing report, it means the CRO has delegated responsibility for selling and marketing.

Because the org chart describes delegation, it also describes who gives work direction to whom. Except … with sales and marketing reporting to a C-level position that reports to the CEO, that leaves the company’s product managers out in the cold. Shouldn’t they, or perhaps the product-line managers they report to, give work direction to the CRO?

Common sense, whatever that is, dictates they should. And so the CEO establishes a dotted-line relationship through which the CRO reports to whoever owns product management.

With perhaps one exception, dotted-line relationships are a mistake. The exception, with few exceptions to the exception: project managers, who will report to the administrative manager accountable for their overall performance, and an executive sponsor, who is accountable for the whole project and, by extension, makes decisions and gives day-to-day work direction to the project manager.

Unless the company wants to run its projects without sponsors (NOOOOOoooooo!) or doesn’t want to give, for example, raises to its project managers, some sort of dual reporting relationship is hard to avoid.

Using dotted-line relationships anywhere else adds, not to put too find a point on it, confusion without clarification. We don’t need a dotted line to figure out the VP of Sales and head of product management are supposed to work together to increase product sales. Nor does the dotted line clarify how the VP of Sales is supposed to resolve the conflicting priorities inherent in selling multiple products and services.

Which leads to the question, why are dotted lines so popular? The answer, I think, is that for many executives, reorganizations are the tool of choice in their how-to-fix-performance toolbox. And to be fair there’s some logic to this thought process.

What it is: On every org chart, each line separating two workgroups adds a barrier to getting work done when the two workgroups both contribute to the work. Therefore, the thought process goes, when work isn’t getting done, re-drawing the org chart so the workgroups in question are closer together should remove, or at least reduce, the size of the barrier.

Which would be just fine and dandy except that the org chart redrawing adds distance between the workgroups in question and other workgroups they have to work with to get other work done.

Reorganizations, that is, mostly fix what’s broken by breaking what’s fixed.

But is there a better alternative? Or, to borrow a line from Argo, is reorganizing, in spite of its flaws, the best bad plan we have?

Fortunately, there are better alternatives. We discussed two of them last week — Centers of Excellence and their less-reliable cousins, Communities of Practice.

A more general solution is to fix the business culture and thinking about what the org chart means.

The shift: When anyone thinks a dotted line will fix anything, redirect their perspective so they understand no line of any kind will help. What will help is the assumption of collaboration, where leaders expect everyone working on anything will automatically bring in whoever else they need to work with get it done.

As for the org chart itself, it’s John Venn to the rescue.

Not, you understand, an actual Venn diagram. Depicting the entire enterprise as overlapping circles isn’t really practical and will just make your head hurt.

But the thought process behind it, re-envisioning the org chart’s boxes and lines as Venn’s overlapping circles?

It will help everyone connect the dots on why not to draw dotted lines.