The Promise and Pitfalls of Structure


The Promise and Pitfall of Structure

For many managers, a well-designed organizational structure is the elusive silver bullet: hard to find, but once you do, sufficient to solve all your communication, authority, and decision-making problems.

Now, I wouldn’t go quite so far. Finding a perfect structure will never happen, and even if you could find one, you can’t completely structure communication, authority, and responsibility.  But, a well-designed organizational structure can at least help provide a model for how authority and responsibility somewhat flow through an organization, create interaction norms and channels of communication, and not only describe patterns of interaction, but also create future modes of interaction.

In my experience working with organizations over the years and in learning from the literature on organizational design, I’ve found that the best organizational structures, among other things:

  1. Provide clarity in the organization for who is responsible for what;
  2. Delineate clear lines regarding supervision and developmental responsibilities for staff;
  3. Promote a healthy, but not domineering, sense of control, coordination, and efficiency:
  4. Encourage collaboration within working units and across the entire organization;
  5. Steward and develop organizational knowledge;
  6. Enhance performance of individuals and collectives (think work groups and teams)
  7. Provide paths for high-level performers and natural leaders to emerge and develop as leaders; and
  8. Are sustainable and expandable to meet future needs without needing to make massive adjustments with each new initiative (although some tweaking is constantly necessary).

Reflection Moment:

If folks in your organization (including you) are confused and/or displeased with how communication flows, people interact, decisions are made, and/or who’s responsible for what, I encourage you to evaluate your organizational structure.  Perhaps you might measure your structure’s effectiveness based on the list I provided above.  

Then, as you think about revamping and redesigning, set some goals for what you want your organizational structure to accomplish, such as the ones I’ve listed above.  As you design, you can measure whatever you come up with against those criteria. 

There are no easy answers or silver bullet approaches to organizational design. You can’t simply copy another organization’s design.  You have to do what works for you. But by intentionally thinking through what you want to accomplish and then structuring to meet those goals, you just might be able to make your organization work just a little bit better!

Sign Up for Updates

If this post is helpful to you, please sign up to receive regular updates via email or, follow me on twitter to get more insights to help you Think Deeply, Act Wisely, and Work Better Together in your teams, small groups, and church, ministry, and non-profit organizations.


Photo Credit: Erik Charlton



  1. zacharymichaelmoore April 2, 2012 at 2:29 am - Reply

    Honestly the steps you’re recommending don’t sound difficult or complex in any way! I think if anyone were to neglect any of these steps it would be so under ignorance, egotism or some form of poor motivation. Yet you’re right when you promote these tenants as something to be followed. “Encourage collaboration within working units and across the entire organization”, This ought to be readily followed yet, counter-cultural themes emerge and combat a cooperative agenda. I like your thoughts!

    • Ryan Hartwig April 2, 2012 at 9:32 am - Reply

      Hi Zach –

      Yes, being intentional and thoughtful in the way we organize are simple concepts. Yet, I’m amazed how often we neglect those simple principles as we do our work.

      Thanks for commenting!


Leave A Comment