I’ve recently had a lot of time to think about how organizational structures work (or don’t work). Typically some VP comes in and then decides to organize things in a different way. S/he probably picks some new way of lining people up and when some don’t fit into the box on a chart, they get a notice that their role has been eliminated. It is pretty typical and (usually) not meant to imply that the work that person does is bad but it just doesn’t fit within the vision of how that VP wants things to be anymore.

I fully admit to being one of those people who would look at my goals and how I was being measured and then come up with an organizational design (I have an emphasis in org design from Kellogg). Just like new VPs, I would put people in to boxes and if they didn’t fit, well, you get the picture.

A few years ago this happened in the consumer insights team (the team I was traded to in some sort of extremely high level backroom deal). My boss who was pretty great as a people manager (much better than me) and a woman who I very much respected was let go (if you are reading this J.M., lmk if I can use your name). I was pretty upset but I really liked my new VP also so I went along. The new VP had the longstanding opinion that people need to conform or fit to the structure rather than building the structure around the people. The previous VP organized around people. The analyst in me bought into the structure is priority argument.

But then a very important person ended up working on my team. This guy just didn’t fit what my boxes said he needed to be. Things got very tense and (A.L, if you are okay with me naming you I would love to) we started having conversations that were really stressful for everybody. Ultimately I stepped back and thought, this person is really valuable to the company. He should be in a different department but because of stupid structures, he is not where he should be. Rather than lose his amazing talents and truly special personality I just started letting him do what he did best. He is the one who taught me that structures can be prisons.

Fast forward a year and the time came for me to work for someone that I really didn’t fit with. I sucked it up because we don’t organize around people and I should find a way to make it work. Well it didn’t work and I bet you know what the end of this story is…I ended up out of the role and looking for something new. Structure became prison for me too. While trying to break free from the chains, I did lots of damage to myself and others. Ah, the irony. Some lessons are hard learned.

Our notion of organizational structure is still so 1950s. We need to be developing databases of people skills and personalities and using modern analysis to determine how they fit into each team. We need to be hiring people because of what they bring as unique beings into an organization of other unique beings. We need to be bringing people in and out of teams and changing up their “tours of duty” based on who they are rather than force fitting them into a box. Measure the person and the circumstances they are in and then feed more data into the model. If you are finding that you have too much of something or not enough of another, then adjust the organization. This business of VP reorganizations every year is killing employee trust.

We need a new way of thinking for the new creative economy. Talent management software will be a game changer IMHO. So much so that I really feel compelled to invent it myself. Feel free to take the idea though. I have a new idea every 10 minutes…

Is your corporate structure feeling pretty prison-like too? What can we do to organize around people instead?