Damn the Org Chart

We've all inherited the same rough idea of how big corporations are supposed to behave. For many it is some combination of the movies Office Space and Wall Street. Bosses are powerful but stupid. Companies are misaligned with their workers' interests. Creativity is discouraged in pursuit of stable profits. And it is the responsibility of every employee to get away with as much as they can without losing their soul. We were raised to believe that companies suck.

I think that's why Silicon Valley companies try so hard not to look traditional. We make ourselves easy targets for parody just to avoid this perception. And I'm not sure we're wrong for doing it.

But the bright colors and catchy slogans catch up with every company eventually. New employees make assumptions about the company no matter what the orientation tells them. They start to see themselves as fundamentally separate from the company. A subject of it rather than a part of it. The tragedy is that the more people feel that way about the company, the more it becomes true.

My advice to avoid falling into this trap: Damn the org chart.

Hierarchy exists because it literally has to. Most management structures are a tree. There can’t be any disconnected branches, so a body must occupy every branching point. These trees are populated from the leaves inward, so you start with a team and then add managers to scale. You never start with a manager and then go look for work. Obviously companies try to make those managers good and usually they succeed. But just because someone is closer to the trunk doesn't make them more important.

As artificial as they are, org charts do serve a valuable purpose. They communicate one aspect of how the company thinks teams and their work should be connected. But there are many ways relationships that it doesn't capture. In any particular case, the org chart is almost certainly wrong on two dimensions. First, people are always working closely with colleagues who are far away on the org chart. These relationships aren't just between product groups but also between disciplines like marketing and communications. Second, power structures rarely align with org structure. Think of every team with a senior technical leader and a more junior manager: both are playing important roles, but the org chart would rarely guide you to the right person to ask a tough question.

The shape of the org chart isn’t the only thing we should ignore. We should also ignore job titles and levels.

Job titles exist because they are convenient. For example, we all have a rough sense of what a Product Manager or an Analyst does. In most cases that’s actually all the context we need. In any particular context, however, it is entirely insufficient. Some engineers are specialists while others are more general. Some designers like to code while others prefer graphic design. We all exist on a shared continuum. The lines we draw between disciplines aren’t meant to define us to the extent we let them. If you internalize your job title, you are limiting yourself. Instead we should each aspire to be honest about our strengths and weaknesses. We should seek to work in teams that allow us to contribute but also grow.

Even levels are information poor. Levels describe the expectations a company has for someone to contribute generally, but that shouldn't grant them authority on any particular issue. In any specific situation the person best situated to do a job should do it, regardless of seniority. This is a lesson that needs to be internalized by both junior and senior contributors alike.

Setting aside the org chart and titles isn't just about individual empowerment, it is about company culture. Culture is about shared beliefs. If everyone believes the org chart matters, then it will even if it shouldn’t. And it is too clumsy a tool for that job.

So fight it. Fight the idea that you are defined by your level or your job title. Fight the premise that people in different orgs shouldn’t work well together. Fight the deference to and reverence for people who appear to be higher in the tree. How? That's the easiest part: just act like those designations don't exist. Ask yourself what you would do if there were no org structure, no titles, and no levels, and you just had a job to do. Then do exactly that.

And realize that what you are fighting here is yourself and not the people around you. Escaping your mental model of role and hierarchy can be an internal struggle. If you succeed it should pave the way for less conflict with your colleagues. You will not only free yourself from constraining expectations, you will also stop placing such expectations on them.

Just don’t give in to the cynicism about companies that pervades our society. Because when it comes to culture, thinking makes it so.