Part 5 - Function over form

This article is Chapter Five of TACSI’s Innovating Us series. Innovating Us is a look inside TACSI’s ongoing journey towards decentralisation. Each of the 11 chapters covers a different aspect of our experience, and some important things we wish we’d known before we started. The series was created over a number of interviews with CEO Carolyn Curtis and organisational development lead Euan Black, drafted by copywriter Cam Sullivan.

Remember it’s about function over form.

One of our biggest priorities when we made the decision to decentralise was working out what TACSI was going to look like after the change. Getting the new structure worked out and modelling an organisational chart seemed like an important first step. We’d read a lot of information on the ‘pod and platform’ structure of networked organisations, and we started with that.

So, we created and refined multiple versions of an organisational diagram, trying to create a visual representation of what TACSI looked like as a networked organisation. We reorganised our people into pods according to our model, and defined the service aspects of our business as a platform.

Each time we evolved a diagram, the visualisation became much clearer for us. And each time, it became more and more confusing for the people in the organisation – and positively alien to outsiders.

What were we doing wrong? We had clear ideas about what each part of the organisation looked like and how they were supposed to work. The structural concepts were in every book we’d read about decentralised, networked or learning organisations. And yet no visualisation we tried was working for us.

The solution came when we realised we were focussing on visualising the form our new organisation would take, rather than what enabled this model to function. In setting up static pods and a platform, we had essentially just relabelled the old silos from the hierarchy, and then removed the support of the hierarchy. No wonder our people were confused and frustrated. We were asking them for the first time to self-manage, told them what it was supposed to look like, and then left them without any boundaries or tools and no clear guidance on responsibility or risk.

People didn’t understand what a ‘pod’ was, or how their role was different now. They didn’t know who had responsibility for what, or how they were supposed to organise around work. Unlike the previous hierarchical system, the structure alone didn’t provide information on any of these things.

So, we looked at our diagram again. But this time, instead of focussing on the parts of the business, we looked at what sat between them. What was it that enabled the individuals in our organisation to work together productively? How could we visualise that, rather than a chain of command? What was the connective tissue that held all of the components together and enabled them to move in harmony?

This was one of the biggest revelations for us on our journey. This connective tissue – what we’ve come to call ‘interstitial tissue’ – was the ‘function’ we were neglecting. It’s the ‘how’ of the organisation, the invisible, implicit network of relationships, understandings, communication and assumptions which enable us all to do what we do together. It was everything that informed our workplace culture, and it was the thing we needed to get back on track.

We began to build up this interstitial tissue, not as an incidental project but as a major focus of our work. We realised we actually didn’t know how it would look to redistribute power and risk among the team at TACSI – and importantly, that nobody else could tell us. So we began working it out together. Rather than imposing a working model onto a group of people, we built the model based on the connective tissue that best allowed those people to work together productively. Supporting our people and helping them to bring their whole selves to work became a driving function of our organisation. We knew that the value we created for our clients would be amplified exponentially by the skills our people were finding in managing themselves.

And, gradually, we are seeing all the parts starting to move in harmony again. We believe this will help us be more responsive to change, and more able to effect it, than we’ve ever been. The right people with the right skills will come together around the work at the right time – not because part of our structure is labelled a ‘pod’ (which it isn’t), but because it’s a natural function of the way they’re working. The form grows organically from the function, and we’re now evolving a very different organisational diagram.

Interviews with Carolyn Curtis, CEO and Euan Black, Organisational Development Lead. Writing and editing by Cam Sullivan.