Sun and planets of the solar systems

A company is not a tree: an alternative map

It seems that everyone dislikes hierarchy in organizations. Even the people at the top of the hierarchy seem to want to get away from the idea. But… the moment we start talking about organizations everyone starts talking about who’s at the top, the CEO, and who reports to who. Try to draw it out and you end up with some sort of inverted tree.

Part of the problem is that we all want, indeed need, structure. Saying “there is a bunch of people” isn’t enough. We need some way of understanding who is who and where they all fit in. Perhaps we cling to hierarchy because we lack a better model to conceptualise our organizations and who they fit together.

Programmers and business designers aren’t the only ones who want to think of things in a neat tree like hierarchies. I was recently introduced to Christopher Alexander’s essay “A city is not a tree” in which he rails against the same idea. Living in London and I while I could imagine constructing a hierarchy on some criteria I immediately know it would be wrong. It would not capture the true nature of London. Neither Oxford Street or Threadneedle Street are at the top, they would be contenders but in different way. Each part place places multiple roles. There isn’t one centre, there are many centres.

Maps help use make sense of places like London but even here we use different maps with different conventions depending on what we want to do: the Tube map is very different to a visitors map which is different to a map of boroughs, we use different maps for different things. And maps shape our thinking and action – consider the Google map of central London with selective information trying to be useful but also trying to s ell things.

Manager at the centre of the solar system

We need maps of our organizations to understand them but in drawing the map we shape our thinking. If we want to move away from hierarchical thinking we need another way of mapping our organizations.

So let me suggest a different way of thinking about an organization, a way I find useful, a way I briefly mention in my “Reawakening Agile with OKRs” presentation: concentric circles – think of it as our solar system with plants (teams) orbiting the sun (leadership.)

Rather than think of your supreme leader at the top of an organization with everyone else below them – an idea that just shouts “inferior” – think of the supreme leader as the centre of the organization. After all, everyone in the company has a relationship with that person even if relationship with them in the same way that every asteroid in the solar system has a relationship with the sun.

The sun, the leader, exerts a force on everything, everyone, else. Some people are close to the centre and close to the leader – they feel a lot of the leaders force. Others are far away, some are so remote the leader struggles to exert any influence.

And while I say “leader” it might be better to think about the leadership team. Close in there isn’t just one leader, even here leadership is split between a CEO, CFO, and even the board. Nobody has total authority, everyone needs to work with others.

You might also add on the communication paths, some teams communicate with other teams a lot, and some teams hardly at all.

Like the solar system there are alternative centres. Earth has but one Moon, that is influenced by the sun but Earth is a far bigger influence. Jupiter has dozens of moons and exerts a lot more influence on its moons than the sun does. Thats not unlike the way some teams and leaders operate.

These satellites influence each other too – maybe not something astronomers see much but some teams follow similar orbits to others and can influence them. Imagine Mars came close enough to Earth at times to influence the seas the way the moon did – even if they only occurred occasionally it would be meaningful. In a company some teams influence others, one team uses the work of another, or they serve the same customers, or the can disrupt the other.

If we are to navigate our organizations without repeatedly referring to tops and bottoms, ups and down, superiors and inferiors, then we need to start changing the models we use to guide us.

This view might also answer another question I raised a few years ago. In Programmers Rorschach Test I noted that organizational charts look exactly like the structure charts I was taught at University. These were an alternative to flow-charts for structured programming in Pascal like languages.

Think about that: organizational design looks exactly like structured programming: Conway’s Law again.

So what does Object Oriented programming look like? Perhaps the solar system provides an answer: lots of independent objects following their own paths but exerting forces on others.

Add asteroids, comets and dwarf planets to planets and moons and you have plenty of ideas to model with.


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3 thoughts on “A company is not a tree: an alternative map”

  1. This captures rather neatly what I’ve discovered on my own. A few years ago I tried to make sense of a distributed nature of teams at my current employer, and the only way I was able to visualise it is by drawing this type of circular map. In that map communication happens on the edges between layers but could also be happening laterally. Of course, it was only an approximation of what was actually going on, but this model helped get the message across.

  2. Interesting.
    Then, I thought, Object Oriented programming often has tree structures of objects too, no?
    It struck me that the Actor Model paradigm, with its emphasis on message passing between concurrently acting actors, might offer a model that is also better for mapping a human organization.

    1. Yes, I like that idea.
      In my imagination the teams are all autonmous, circling the centre but making their own way, and there is message passing between them. Sometimes the messages cause them to act differently while other times the team might ignre the message.
      So maybe my visualisation doesn’t so much correspond to Java and C++ style OO but is somewhat closer to Smalltalk or Objetive-C OO.

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