Posted By : Markus Hesse
5th October 2018
The Structural Time Bomb
The Structural Time Bomb-image

… or why developing your organisational structure around personalities is a killer

Yes, in an ideal world, the management team members get along very well, complement and support each other and align their efforts to achieve the strategic objectives of the organisation in an effective manner, seeking to maximise social impact. However, different personalities and leadership styles can easily lead to frictions between members of executive teams. What can a CEO do when realising tensions between individual members of the top team? Rearranging responsibilities and changing the organisational structure looks at first sight like a solution – but does this really make sense?   


At a first glance, it might look like a great idea to shape the responsibilities within a storming leadership team in such a way that the two conflicting parties have minimal interaction and interdependencies. Motto: “There is enough work for all, so let’s split the work that our delinquents can avoid each other.” At the end they both add great value to the organisation and hence we don’t fall into the trap of losing one or even both. Problem solved…. REALLY?

CEOs who follow this convenient path don’t solve the problem at all. As a matter of fact, they have set the root cause for a continental drift within their organisation – an effect which leads to severe silo thinking and can put the entire organisation at risk. Why? Because each party will develop their own approach, leading to different priorities. The problem escalates when behaviour and mindset cascade down throughout the different levels of the hierarchy. „Them“ and „us“ will determine the future collaboration. Cross functional communication decreases dramatically because everybody wants to limit interactions dealing with „them“. Often in these situations we see an increase of micro politics. Two (or more) kingdoms have been created and it becomes tempting to replace the actual strategic goals with a new informal objective, demonstrating that „we“ are right and „they“ are wrong.

One of the consequences is that cross functional initiatives and decisions (budget process, strategic projects, etc.) are taken for proxy wars. Winning against the other team becomes more important than winning the entire game. 

Developing an organisational structure that supports the overarching goals and enables productive collaboration across all functions isn’t an easy task. You might have heard about the wisdom that structure follows strategy, but the question remains: Can and should we look at the structure within the context of the existing management and staff pool, taking into consideration different personalities? Can we really detach the development of the organisational structure from personalities?

Well, it depends on what is most important to you: If members of your leadership team are not able to deliver the social impact you seek, do you change the course of the organisation – or do you change the people?

If your answer is „I change the course of the organisation“, well then I recommend a strategic health test. If you’d go for the second option, I recommend to strictly leave personalities out and to focus on the following process steps:

  1. Analyse strengths and weaknesses of the existing structure 
  2. Develop objectives (broken down from the strategy)
  3. Analyse best practice (inside and outside the sector)
  4. Develop scenarios
  5. Screen scenarios against the objectives 
  6. Define roles and relationships
  7. Develop an HR plan 
  8. Communicate 

A project or initiative addressing names and boxes is a very political and highly controversial task. Hence, it is recommended to have this process facilitated. Facilitation can be defined as “ease a process”. A facilitator plans, guides and documents a group’s work to ensure that the objectives are met effectively, with full participation, clear thinking, and buy-in from everyone who is involved. 

In many situations, and particularly on a political topic like structure, good facilitation makes the difference between success and failure. Direct Impact Group’s facilitators have a wide range of skills and tools and methods. We create the working space which is required for success and ensure that stakeholders become participants.

To facilitate a group process effectively, it is essential that the facilitator takes a neutral stance. It is important to step back from content and any personal views. Only in this way space is created for effective collaboration which allows the team members to fully own the developed solution. The job is to focus on the process. By “process” I mean the approach used to manage discussions, get the best from all participants, and bring the group work to measurable results.

So, coming back to the initial problem: If structure is not the solution to tensions in the management team, what is the best approach? That depends of course on the gravity of the conflict and the situation. Methods like conflict facilitation or even mediation can be helpful. But whatever you do: do not activate the structural time bomb…

Markus Hesse

Markus is the co-founder and managing partner of Direct Impact Group, ltd. He combines experience as consultant and coach of international projects in a variety of industries for Fortune 500 and mid-sized companies with experience in executive management of international organisations. His core competencies are agile strategies and transformative change programmes. Markus Hesse’s educational background includes an M.A. in Business Coaching and Change Management. He is author for the EURO-FH university in Hamburg on change management and accredited member of the Europan Association of Supervision and Coaching.