I was sitting with a woman in the Human Resources Department. There had been a reorganization of our department, part of a general reshuffling across the company, and I’d been assigned to sit with her to work out the new organization chart.
You would think this was something of a useless exercise. Shouldn’t it be a simple matter of “here’s the boss, here are his or her direct reports, and here’s who reports to them.” But it was anything but simple, and I was to get a lesson in the Byzantine art form of corporate organization charts.
First, she pointed out, not all of the boss direct reports had the same title. Some were directors; some were managers. Next, there were directors and there were directors – a title wasn’t necessarily indicative of grade level, and grade level was everything. The chart had to indicate that by a subtle positioning of the boxes, with some slightly more elevated than the others. The same thing applied to the managers. Then there was the problem of some managers have more people reporting to them than directors did.
And then for the mass of people in the department, those with no one reporting to them (aka the people who did the work), the grade levels were all over the place. That had to be accounted for, without making the chart itself look like a mess.
Organization chart-making was an art form. It was like highly formalized poetry, simultaneously including massive complexity displayed as simplicity. Because we had more than 80,000 people in the company, the Human Resources Department had a team of people devoted to the care and maintenance of organization charts. That’s all they did. And reorganizations were their worst nightmare.
A decade of reorganization after reorganization, along with asset sales and layoffs, led to the only possible response. Organization chart-making was decentralized to various business and administrative units; centralization of the charts disappeared. We had moved from high formalized poetry where everything had to rhyme within the correct meter to the universe of absolute free verse. Everything became a jumble. Without the inviable hand of that old HR team managing the charts, what few charts were produced effectively misinformed everyone.
As cumbersome and time-consuming as they were to create and maintain, the old organization charts did manage to account for management exceptions, problems, and quirks. Yes, management should have figured out how to handle personnel problems, but we’re talking about human beings here, with their frailties, willfulness, and pride (some managers never, never made mistakes, and they were ready to tell you that).
The traditional organization chart didn’t so much accommodate that reality as figure out a way to record it. And the new world of no organization charts couldn’t last for long; people crave order and stability. This became worse when organizations embraced the matrix structure, which is stubbornly resistant of explanation by chart.
Like a poem, an organization chart is a human-constructed artifact. Change a word, or change a box, and the entire meaning can change, and often does. But also like poems, organizational charts have influences, histories, and embedded complexities. Not to mention ambiguities.
From Poetry at Work: “It makes a kind of sense, this organizational free verse, but many of us remember and still long for the time when we knew where responsibility and accountability lay – expressed by the formal poetry of the organization chart.”
Top photograph by Alex Kotliarskyi via Unsplash. Used with permission.
This article was prepared for the Literary Life Book of the Month discussion group on Facebook.