Organizations in Four Part Harmony

What exactly makes up an organization and how is work done within them?  This is a subject of a handy mental model I use when I am trying to understand an organization; an organization in four part harmony.

1.    Harmony 1, Infrastructure: the furniture, furnaces, machinery and head offices of the organization.  Note that in many organizations infrastructure is often a non-tangible.  For example a computerized airline reservation system or perhaps a finance system.

Steamfitter, by Lewis Hine (American, 1874–1940) .  Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.  Accession Number: 54.549.56

Steamfitter, by Lewis Hine (American, 1874–1940) . Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Accession Number: 54.549.56

2.    Harmony 2, Operations: these are the day-in-day-out processes, tasks and procedures which we typically hire people to do.  Accounts payable clerks, widgets assembler or process engineers are hired because payables need to be clerked, widgets assembled and processes engineered.

3.    Harmony 3, Ad hoc activities: if you have a reserved parking spot close to the head office of an organization, I bet this is what you do all day.  Sure, you were hired to do operations (Chief Executive/Finance/Information Officer) and sometimes operational work sneaks in when you are not looking.  More than likely though, you have crossed into the grey and smudgy no-man’s land that separates operations from the world of the ad hoc.

4.    Harmony 4, Strategic thinking/planning: Periodically, the leaders of an organization will set aside their many ad hoc and fewer operational activities to complete strategic plans.  Strategic plans hopefully answer questions like, do we have the right infrastructure, efficient operations and why are there so many ad hoc activities.

Four Perfect Harmonies

If you dig out your old college text books, organizations are described as functioning something like this.  Wise executives poke their heads up from the fray and gain strategic knowledge.  In turn, this knowledge is used to tweak infrastructure and adjust operations.  Ad hoc opportunities are few and nearly always involve entering into new markets, maximizing shareholder wealth or stakeholder well-being.

Dilbert and The Four Harmonies

In a Dilbert’esque world, the four harmonies work in isolation.  Most of the management focus is on performing ad hoc work that usually involves fixing or infrastructure or operations.  This is because infrastructure suffers from a lack of investment while operations are conducted by poorly trained leading the newly hired.  The only time either of these harmonies get any attention is when they fail and then they are hastily repaired, usually in an ad hoc manner.

Beyond the Harmonies

Most organizations fall in between these two extremes.  Ideally infrastructure is like a well-run furnace on a cold winter’s day – well-functioning, appreciated and invisible.  Time invested in operations saves management effort solving future ad hoc problems (an ounce of prevention is worth of pound of cure).   Ad hoc efforts need to be the exception and not the standard modus operandi of an organization.  Unfortunately management through heroics and drive by management can make it difficult to operationalize a corporate culture used to the adrenalin rush of the last moment.

Finally strategic planning should be an ongoing rather than intermittent activity, ad hoc activity.  Ideally, an orchestra-conductor makes small corrections to the harmony rather than having to stop the tune and start again from the top.

Organizations are much too complex to fit into four neat buckets, but it is surprising how this simple model has help me channel my thinking about complex and abstract structures, such as organizations.  So, how well does your organization manage the four harmonies and what are your thoughts on the mental model?  As always drop me your thoughts, ideally via a singing telegram in four part harmony.