How catching blue crabs is similar to the five steps of designing organization structure

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Print this page By Genevieve Roberts, partner & HR consultant, Titan Group

I am forever inspired when I park myself at the end of my 120-foot pier on the Potomac River on a lazy Friday afternoon, even though I’m trying not to feel guilty for being out of the office. 

I look down into the river a couple of feet below me and am amazed by what I find.  Nature at its best — in harmony (man’s pollution aside) and things in order.  Minnows are swimming, trying to elude the croakers or fish, who are also looking out for their own predators — fisherman and the Blue Crab.

The crabs feast on many things, including the melting menhaden I placed in my crab pot only minutes earlier.  Some enter the trap — never to back out.  A well-organized system and life cycle exists in the water below.  Whether you eat crab or not, life in the river is a simple cycle, where crabs and other sea beings feed on and use each other to survive.  Each creature has a role with specific responsibilities in their hierarchy of nature. 

Stretch that analogy to the workplace, where employees are looking to survive in their ever changing environments.  The way you approach designing organizational structure can be less painful if you follow my recommended five steps.

First, be clear with your team about why changed is needed.  Perhaps the company has taken on a new strategy or downsized and work needs to get redistributed.  Explain what the company is trying to accomplish from a vision and strategy standpoint.  Ensure that your division or department is aligned with those goals.  Painting the big picture for employees about the need for structural change will help them embrace it.

Second, deicide what structure your division needs to meet its goals. Are you product focused? Customer driven? Geographic differentiator? Or functional?  There are several different types of structures with advantages and disadvantages that should be considered.  For example, if your department handles marketing for the company and serves multiple customers inside and outside the business, a functional structure may be the best way to go.  For more information on selecting structure check out “Designing Dynamic Structures”, by Jay Galbraith.

Third, work with your team to decided the “big buckets” of required work for each department. At this point, don’t make specific assignments, just focus on what needs to get done each day.  List these on flipcharts and gain agreement.  Then, focus on identifying the work for which each bucket has responsibility. (Mark these in boxes underneath the buckets.) Consider changing processes and workflows. Ask many questions. Is this process most efficiently done in this box or that one? Which will better meet our customer needs? Internally and externally?

Fourth, once you have selected the buckets and boxes, add the details.  This step is usually the most difficult because you need to name departments and ultimately employees in specific roles.  Again, use your team to aid you in these decisions, which allows people to have their input heard.  They may not agree with the ultimate decision, but at least they could weigh in.

Fifth and finally, take the time to create a detailed implementation plan.  Just because you have a flip chart with new boxes and names in them doesn’t mean the structure will change overnight.  Check the final design against strategy and goals, ensure processes are flowing correctly, and engage HR to help with the people side of the changes — new job descriptions, promotions, compensation and reward systems, and development plans.  Then “communicate, communicate, communicate” to all key stakeholders.

The sun is setting, and it’s time to check the crab pots to see what’s for dinner. I hope I have not disrupted too much the organizational flow of my little piece of the river.

Genevieve Roberts is managing principal of Richmond-based Titan Group LLC and can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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