This is the second in a series of three posts illustrating some core insights from Slack by Tom DeMarco. The first post is on unhealthy busyness, and the last post is on facilitating substantial change.
TL;DR: The white space between the lines and boxes of an organizational chart is an important indicator of an organization’s health. If this white space is vibrant and communicative, then this is where innovation and organizational redesign are likely to happen. Especially middle managers need to be able to act as a team to shape an organization that can adapt to change.
You have probably seen an org chart of your, or some other, organization before. Usually, there are lines and boxes, with boxes representing people or teams, and lines representing relationships of authority and reporting. Something like this:
But wait a second. Are authority and reporting all the lines represent? Shouldn’t they also represent the paths of communication in the organization, in order to make communication more efficient? Like a chain of command in the military?
Stick to the path?
Some people seem to think so. In some organizations, it is actually dangerous to deviate from the lines. For example, imagine Emma, Bob, and Chris (see org chart above) to have a little meeting to talk about ideas for the future of their work area. They are all team leads with a number of direct reports, and they share the same boss, Mandy. Mandy hears about this meeting, or actually sees it happen. Not being a very trusting person, she thinks this meeting is somewhat suspicious. What on earth could they be talking about? And why was she not invited? Are they planning to go behind her back with something, or even bully her out of her job, and take over the lead themselves? Mandy does not like it, and tells her people to stop having these meetings.
This scenario is, I believe, not that uncommon. I know two team leads who used to have meetings at places their boss couldn’t find them, or wait until late when he had already left the office. Only then could they take time to talk about common problems. Their boss positively did not want them to talk too much with each other, because he wanted to uphold some “healthy competition” between them (I’ll talk a bit more about “healthy” competition further down). The real reason was probably that this manager wanted to stay in total control. Therefore, he wanted to avoid situations where his directs might made plans or decisions without his knowledge.
In Slack, Tom DeMarco argues that next to the lines and boxes, there is a component in org charts that is often overlooked, and yet important: The white space between all the lines and boxes. It is hard to put your finger on it in real life: It is neither a person, nor a location, nor a department. It is rather characterized by communication, emotion, and possibilities. For example, is communication possible between two boxes that have no line between them? Can you freely chat with your boss’ boss in private, or do you have to fear that your boss will feel deceived? Can you just go talk to the CEO about something you would like to see improved? Can you reach out to your peer managers, or is it frowned upon?
The more diverse and frequent these kinds of communication are, the more vibrant the white space becomes. DeMarco says it is a sign of organizational health when a lot of communication happens in the white space. Ideas and knowledge will flow freely, and anybody will be able to learn from anybody else. In order to reach this state, however, managers have to add a crucial ingredient: Slack.
The title-giving “slack” comes in two forms that are equally important. One is “time slack”: It should be safe for people not to appear busy. The second one is “control slack” — supervisors should not control and question every single action of their people. It should be ok for people, and even encouraged, to deviate from the lines in the org chart, and move across white space to reach a goal or to gather support for an idea. This is an act of empowerment by the manager, and, as DeMarco argues, empowerment always goes hand in hand with a certain loss of control. If you let people make their own decisions within a certain scope, these decisions are not yours any more. You transfer some control to your employees. And this is hard to swallow for some managers, but it is also crucial for the growth of your people.
Where does organizational learning happen?
But even though your people’s growth is important, there is an even more powerful argument for allowing people to move freely in the white space. According to DeMarco, the white space, especially in the middle of the org chart, is where change, innovation, and re-invention happen.
“Companies that are best at organizational learning have vital, communicative white space. This is true all up and down the hierarchy, but particularly at the middle. The white space between peer middle managers is where reinvention happens.” — Tom DeMarco
Why does he put so much emphasis on the middle managers? His point is that individual contributors at the lower end of the org chart are often caught up in their day-to-day work, lack a broader perspective, or do not have the power to carry out significant reinvention schemes. On the other side, managers at the top lack the deep involvement in the day-to-day business needed for corporate reinvention.
But how does a “vital, communicative white space” help innovation and organizational learning? Imagine you have an idea, but it is incomplete, and not yet ready to push. It needs refinement and validation. For this, you need other people to discuss and brainstorm. Your subordinates might be willing to help you refine your idea, but as mentioned above, sometimes they will not have the entire big picture. Also, in order to carry out your change, you might need more powerful allies than that. If you are lucky, your boss is such a potential ally. However, at this point, it might be too early to present this not even half-finished idea to your boss, because if he says “no”, then that’s it. Your idea is burnt up.
Therefore, you need to be able to step into the white space, and talk to your fellow managers in order to convince them of the idea. If this is not safe to do — if you run the risk of being criticized, or punished, or ridiculed, or if your idea might get “stolen” — then your potentially great idea might silently disappear, and never come back.
This is why, in the initial example above, Mandy’s behaviour is so damaging. She promotes isolation and competition among her subordinate team leads. She makes the white space between them dangerous, either consciously or subconsciously. Common reasons for unsafe white space are:
- Mandy might be mistrustful: She suspects that whoever communicates something important without going through her is up to something evil and intends to harm her.
- Mandy, or the organization in general, might be authoritarian: Subordinates cannot just feel free to make their own decisions or plans outside a very narrow scope. They have to ask for permission first.
- The organization might be slackless: If you have the time to look left and right, leave the well-trodden path, and chat with people who have no connection to you on the org chart, you seem not to be busy enough with “real work”. Not being busy is suspicious, because everybody else sure is, and they will let you know that you’re acting strange.
But isn’t the competition that Mandy promotes healthy in a way, because it drives everybody to better performance? Well, yes: If you want galley slaves to row faster, internal competition might be healthy to the organization, because you squeeze out more performance, and, due to the legal situation in the Ancient Roman Empire, employee retention is not a problem. (You would be pretty cruel, though. Don’t do it.) In a knowledge organization, however, there is nothing “healthy” about competition. Internal competition always exacts a price. Knowledge work is collaborative. If you want an organization that can respond to change, competition is disastrous. All it does is prevent collaboration, and therefore learning and innovation.
“Significant organizational learning can’t happen in isolation. It always involves the joint participation of a set of middle managers. This requires that they actually talk to each other and listen to each other, rather than just taking turns talking to and listening to a common boss.” — Tom DeMarco
In other words, there have to be actual management teams on potentially several levels, where middle managers collaborate and learn from each other. There is the notion of the “first team” that comes to mind. Emma, Bob, and Chris all work with their directs every day, so they naturally call them “their teams”. However, their actual “first team” should be the management team. Each team for itself might perform brilliantly, but if the management team is dysfunctional, the overall result might still be mediocre. Only if the respective management actually works together as a team, and each manager aligns their people on a common course, can the overall result be consistently excellent. Therefore, decisions made in the first team have to be able to overrule decisions made in the teams on the lower level.
Note that this “first team” is not even an actual team in the org chart, i.e., it has no box or circle around it. This proves once more that pretty important things can go on in the white space.
DeMarco gives the following recipe to enable organizational learning:
- Since reinvention takes place in the middle of the organization, there actually has to be a middle. Don’t fire all your middle managers.
- Pour in some slack, so that they have some time left to think about organizational reinvention.
- Increase safety in the white space.
- Break down managerial isolation.
If you are a manager of managers, please encourage them to collaborate and to come up with ideas of their own. You have a perspective that they do not have. But the opposite is also true.
This blog post took me roughly 5.5h to compose and edit.