Organizational Structure: Cake or Pudding?

org-charts-bannerWarning: This message has very little nutritional value. Many, many years ago when I was a college student, a professor asked us to draw an organization. Mostly, the results looked like this: a series of boxes in a pyramid with connecting lines. There was a boss at the top (The Man), several layers increasing in size, and then the workers forming a large base at the bottom.   Conceptually, organizations are configured to funnel decision-making and authority to a few individuals, who are at the top of a chart. This is known as hierarchical organization with reporting levels showing the power relationships of people in the structure. Most organizations I’ve worked for have this structure with a management chain-of-command, a distribution of work, and rules/processes that guide the operation.


I tend to think of organizations like a layer cake, even if it’s not a pyramid, there are layers of management or groups of employees performing like functions separated by levels or classification bands. I love cake but I don’t like mixing food and organizational structure because it brings on the antacids, and it’s terribly messy.


In the eons since I first drew that set of boxes, organizational structure has undergone a lot of change. At one end is the traditional pyramid (layer cake), and at the other end is structure that seems void of any structure – where there are few formal reporting relationships and almost everyone is free to form into teams or work independently. I view this as pudding.


I’ll bet that no one else has ever compared an organization to dessert choices, but I’m willing to wear that badge of enlightenment.   Layer cake wouldn’t be layer cake if there wasn’t such thing as frosting. Frosting, besides being delicious, fills an important role, like organizational culture, it is fluid and fills in between the layers. Culture is generally not related to jobs or bands or classifications, nor is it identified with certain individuals, it’s everyone and everywhere. Culture is what unifies employees, provides common identify and should represent the core values of that organization. Obviously, frosting cannot manage or make decisions, it is also terrible at making sales presentations. Frosting is more of a consensus builder, not only does it stabilize the layers it decorates and everyone enjoys life with a taste of sweetness.


A different kind of organizational structure is a matrix structure. It is somewhat in the middle of range of structures; it has some hierarchical structure but is more flexible than the pyramid. A matrix organization is usually defined as one where there are multiple reporting lines – that is, people have more than one formal boss or work in project teams where someone has multiple reporting relationships. In many organizations, employees work in teams, they may be evaluated by a formal supervisor but their day to day work is coordinated by someone else. Teams may change composition as projects or assignments change, or coming together for larger operations or events. Teams may also have some autonomy for planning and decision-making.


With more Millennials in the workforce and moving into management positions, the line between the formal and informal structure is blurring. In today’s world, flexibility and adaptability are highly valued traits in organizations. Managers as well as workers must embrace changing dynamics and rapidly evolving markets and organizational scalability. In organizations that thrive on creativity and innovation, this freedom of movement and association breaks the norm. Flexible hours, telecommuting and fewer traditional workplace rules are common. These organizations reject formal structure for the ability to move and conform to fluid external tastes. Rather like pudding. Easily mixed, easy to apportion, and very uniform.


So the question is: Pudding or cake?   Besides discussing the importance of two great dessert items, they serve to represent different physical as well as relational forms. Puddings are creamy or custard-like, while cakes are more solid and bread-like after baking, and may be assembled in layers or sheets. [I’ll leave pies out of the discussion.]


Organizational structures meet the dynamics of their mission, workplace dynamics, employee preferences, operational needs and management philosophy. While I might prefer a more traditional pyramid structure, even that model is undergoing tremendous change, with flattened hierarchies and rotating work teams. Maybe you can see where I’m heading. The new model might be: pudding cake. Outstanding! There are more options than ever on the dessert cart.


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