Social maps, networks and how things actually get done

If you google organisational structure, you’ll get 59,200,000 articles in .6 of a second, and another gazillion images of how to draw them. It seems that we have an obsession with putting people in tiny boxes, in our endless quest to control their contribution. What if we instead had the same obsession with how people actually work together, because it’s how they actually work together that makes or breaks your organisation. Plus, it holds the keys to how to move your culture forward.

The great time waster – ‘Restructuring’

I’ve always been from the school that large-scale restructuring is a sign that you have not been moving your team and talent in sync with your strategy.
Getting the right structure is not an event, it is an iterative process. Each time you focus on a priority, you put the right resources in the right place. Your team grows to trust that your decisions are predictable, always in the best interest of the organisation. And, they’re confident that they will personally move and learn new things in step with the future shape of the business.

To that end, the monster-size restructure, that is developed secretly behind closed doors, is incredibly disrespectful to your whole team. They’re with you, they’re working hard, let them co-create the right way forward. There’s nothing cool about a surprise restructure, complete with paperwork that someone has been developing for weeks.

And don’t get us started on a ‘spill and fills’ – why would upsetting every single person on the team ever be considered strategic.

So, restructures other than in gradual alignment are a waste of time, but what about hierarchies?

Hierarchies – what are they good for

Hierarchies are “a system in which members of an organization or society are ranked according to relative status or authority” – Oxford Dictionary.

They are as old of families, and are necessary and helpful for a few things:

  • Accountability for decisions
  • Stopping bottlenecks that come with too few decision-makers
  • Cascading empowerment to get things done
  • A pathway for people who aspire to run the team/division/organisation

So, you do need some hierarchy. Next question is, what are your choices and how do you choose?

Hierarchies – your options


Let’s start with the traditional:


This is the one we all know. It’s built off the structure of families. Parents in charge, clear reporting lines, and clarity on role and position. This is how organisations have traditionally been built, with clear roles, governance, and control.

Next option is the Matrix:


As organisations got too complicated for traditional structures – namely the US Space Program in the 1960s – and deeply specialised roles were essential for success, the matrix structure was born.

Its primary strength has been that specialists can have two reporting lines – one that raises revenue and service and another that knows (and appreciates) their deep expertise. Their greatest weakness is exactly the same thing. Where do you have Christmas when there are two equally important sets of parents? People get pulled towards two equally-weighted decision-makers.

You might notice it looks like a Rubix cube. That’s not by accident. There’s a lot of research on why they don’t work.

So, we started to leave the Matrix, and get Agile. Despite the best of intentions, most (self-described) matrix organisations are actually a hybrid of traditional and fully agile, and frankly, it’s not a bad option.


Clear decision-makers and clarity on strategic priorities, with networks underneath adjusting to shifting workloads, service requirements and client needs.

So Traditional, Matrix and Agile are your three primary design options, with the real creativity coming from choosing the right one, or the right combination, for the different work to be done in each part of your business.

Hierarchies are interesting, and whichever you choose, you then have to consider how people come together. And this is where the real culture work is done.

Where the magic happens – Consider the network

The reality is that people work for people, with people, to help people, to serve people, for the good of people, and they go the extra mile for people. In short, it’s all about people. Get the relationships right, and everything else is easy.

The mistake that is so often made is, when relationships fail, and organisations falters, we often try to fix them with structure, policies or heavy processes. We try to box people into over-engineered control mechanisms, to ‘structure’ our way through an innately human challenge. We stare at the relationships that don’t work, and shy away from fixing them.

If you want a better product, the extra mile on service, an above-system sales lift, or a more inclusive culture where people thrive, then changing job titles or hierarchy won’t be your answer. The answer to all those will be in the network – the social maps of whose helping who, who leans in, who give people confidence and who gets stuff done.

So, for every minute you spend on structure – you should spend the same time on understanding how your team actually works together – your networks, connections, momentum-builders and go-to people for solving problems.


The role of leaders

We fully appreciate the role of a leader as an individual. Out the front, capturing hearts and minds. Setting the pace.

The other half of the job is less obvious but equally important. It is in understanding the networks and making sure they work. It’s visiting shops, branches, and factories and seeing and hearing what’s going on.

The challenge then becomes how you do this at scale. How do you connect the more subtle relationship dots of ‘between divisions’, or the silo breakers, and the relationship trends that are creating virtuous cycles? How do you know who’s making them work?

This is your social map. And it’s just as important as your structure, and with new technology and thinking, its just as easy to map.


How do you map and then move culture?

Traditional culture work starts with what’s wrong – a collated list of individual gripes.

Today’s best culture work starts with what’s right!

Looking at a map of your networks and connections across the organisation – what is working well?

Where are your best people and teams, having the best possible impact on each other, coming up with the best new ideas, and overcoming challenges to deliver what customers and clients want today and tomorrow.

Once you can see how that works – and we call that your social maps –  your role becomes how to give people enough support, and enough space, concurrently, to succeed and make good things happen together.

And that’s how you move culture forward.

Understand it. Map it. Leverage it. And get out of the way.