It was the end of a long, hot day. I had flown to make a speech, and was invited to stay to the dinner to meet some of the conference sponsors. Over the prawn starter I found myself sitting next to the CEO of a paper products company I had never heard of, and we got to discussing organisational structures. As you do.
The CEO, a quiet, courteous man, offered me a way of thinking about organisations, the boldness of which belied his self- effacing exterior. He was, he explained by way of preface, a physicist, and in physics he had done a lot of work around ‘Interferences’. Interference in physics he explained, is not a pejorative term, but simply one given to describe how two difference objects interact with each other. The interaction between magnesium and water, for example, is an interference.
I think of my organisation primarily in terms of interferences, he said; I don’t have an organisational structure that is based on individuals and departments, because that is not the most useful way of thinking about them. I need to have a company where the relationships between the individuals and the disciplines they represent are healthy, dynamic and productive; it doesn’t matter how good an individual is, if their interferences are unproductive, or even counter-productive. So my organisational chart is one of interferences, not individuals. Because that is the most important thing underpinning my company’s future growth.
I’ve worked with a lot of companies since that dinner. I’ve talk to a lot of HR Directors and CEOs. Some of them, a handful, understand the primacy of this ambition, and personally promote the kinds of seating structures and processes that break down silos and silo thinking None of them, however, have gone as far as to actually think of the formal organisational structure in terms of those relationships. Insights in HR seem confined to the nature and motivation of individuals on the one hand, and the motivation behavior of groups on the other; those all-important interferences always seem to be structurally forgotten. Perhaps it is time we took them more seriously.
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This article first appeared in Campaign Asia Pacific