Your Org Chart is Not Your Organization

Org Chart Courtesy Google Author Unknown

But you know that.

At least I think you know that.

Yet the org chart just won’t die. It’s still the most popular, simplistic, and common way of depicting our organizations. It provides a snapshot of people in little squares that represent function and span of control or at least that’s the intention.

Org charts are motionless, time-bound and mechanical. But we know organizations are dynamic, evolving and alive.

Org charts simple, structured and linear. But we know organizations are complex, interdependent networks.

Org charts predictable, control-oriented and safe. But we know organizations are unpredictable, spontaneous and messy. 

Even in very tightly managed, hierarchical organizations, with clear lines of authority, there are other informal forces at work to which everyone adapts and yet they are rarely examined nor understood. I suspect you’ve experienced this hidden organization.

To see these forces at work you have to look for relationships and patterns that don’t map to the boxes on the chart.

For example, you might visualize the organization in terms of energy burn or resource use in the form of a heat map.

Picture the flow of communication to find choke points and detours that create friction and delays.

View the organization from the perspective of various cultures (or tribes) that exist within the larger culture.

What about the current levels of trust or conflict between and within teams or the real sources of power and influence in the organization?

If you were to map the world in which you work based on these criteria what would you see? How might this be important or useful? What other criteria can you imagine?

Notice I’m not talking about new ways of organizing around work or to do work. New theories of organizational design are popping up every day and some of them are very interesting and exciting. They represent the natural evolution of our thinking about these structures in light of the massive changes in technology and society.

We’ve been more or less structuring organizations the same way for a very long time so change will not come easy but I think we all sense that those organizations willing to stretch beyond the formal structures of the past will have a distinct advantage. It takes courage and vision but there are organizations who are already leading the way.

My point is that regardless of the structure in which you find yourself,  you can develop the ability to see through and into the organization without focusing on the boxes in the org chart. They tell only a small part of a much bigger story.

Observe relationships, energy, alignment, adaptability, cooperation, trust, friction and how these occur regardless of boundaries or titles. Watch how people interact and react. Notice where things get stuck or diverted. These are the real vital signs that help you gauge the health of the organization.

As you develop this skill you can intervene and adapt more quickly to the internal and external forces that may put the organization at risk or that limit you or your team’s effectiveness. You will be required to expand your vision, notice details, observe how people do what they do and how things get done. But it takes more than one person.

In the ideal scenario, we create an environment where everyone cares for the health of the whole organization regardless of where they appear on the org chart and considers the voice of the organization in every key decision.


  1. This is an interesting view on how the informal and formal organization work together to create a whole but most only acknowledge the formal organization.


    1. Thank you, Nora. In reality, the informal organization is the one that matters most don’t you think? The org chart is like the chessboard. It provides the structure for the game but the game is played by the pieces and they can follow thousands of different paths to achieve the outcome. I wonder how often leaders pause to really evaluate this alternate organization or seek to influence at this level.


      1. I often wonder how aware leaders are of the informal organization. They do not participate in the informal organization in the same manner that employees would and though their organization is impacted by it their view of it would be from a biased perspective.


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