Coda Hale was, until last year, Principal Engineer at MailChimp. As a result, they seamless mix in words and equations in this article that betray an engineering background.
You shouldn’t let that put you off, though, as this deep dive into organisational design is absolutely worth it. I want to quote two sections in particular, but go and read the whole thing!
The first bit, is the difference between the way that management visualises the structure of an organisation versus how it actually works. Hale explains this as the difference between things that look like they’re working in parallel but which actually sequential:
As with writing highly-concurrent applications, building high-performing organizations requires a careful and continuous search for shared resources, and developing explicit strategies for mitigating their impact on performance.
I’ve definitely been in the situation as a consultant multiple times where we’re used as a way to get around organisational inefficiencies. But then when you plug the work back into the organisation, you have to sit and wait until the next bit of work comes along. There’s no rhythm to it, which is annoying for everyone. It’s incoherent.
A commonly applied but rarely successful strategy is using external resources–e.g. consultants, agencies, staff augmentation–as an end-run around contention on internal resources. While the consultants can indeed move quickly in a low-contention environment, integrating their work product back into the contended resources often has the effect of… a quadratic spike in wait times which increases utilization which in turn produces a superlinear spike in wait times… Successful strategies for reducing contention include increasing the number of instances of a shared resource (e.g., adding bathrooms as we add employees) and developing stateless heuristics for coordinating access to shared resources (e.g., grouping employees into teams).
As with heavily layered applications, the more distance between those designing the organization and the work being done, the greater the risk of unmanaged points of contention. Top-down organizational methods can lead to subdivisions which seem like parallel efforts when listed on a slide but which are, in actuality, highly interdependent and interlocking. Staffing highly sequential efforts as if they were entirely parallel leads to catastrophe.
So the best thing to do, whether you’re working with outside people/orgs or not, is to limit the number of people who need to be consulted as part of processes:
The only scalable strategy for containing coherence costs is to limit the number of people an individual needs to talk to in order to do their job to a constant factor.
This is an article I’ll be coming back to!
In terms of organizational design, this means limiting both the types and numbers of consulted constituencies in the organization’s process. Each additional person or group in a responsibility assignment matrix geometrically increases the area of that matrix. Each additional responsibility assignment in that matrix geometrically increases the cost of organizational coherence.
It’s also worth noting that these pair-wise communications don’t need to be formal, planned, or even well-known in order to have costs. Neither your employee handbook nor your calendar are accurate depictions of how work in the organization is done. Unless your organization is staffed with zombies, members of the organization will constantly be subverting standard operating procedure in order to get actual work done. Even ants improvise. An accurate accounting of these hidden costs can only be developed via an honest, blameless, and continuous end-to-end analysis of the work as it is happening.
Source: Work Is Work | codahale.com
Image: CC BY-NC-SA LockRikard