About seven years ago, the BBC broadcasted a series called ‘How we built Britain’, presented by the veteran David Dimbleby. In the episode dedicated to the Victorians, he said something, almost in passing, which has stuck in my mind since: ‘For every problem, the Victorians had a building’. Growing local government? OK, here we are, big City Halls (Manchester, Leeds… ) Actually, Manchester thought of itself as the new Florence. Mental illness? Sure, the big asylums are built in the form of ‘mini-towns’ (all services included) which the great Canadian sociologist, Erving Goffman (1922-1982), would call ‘Total Institutions’. Mass transportation? No problem, railways and their cathedral-like train stations appear. Add also big churches, big shopping malls (probably not called this) and big leisure centres. ‘The building’ was the answer. And the bigger, the better.
‘Management’ is the ‘Victorian Architecture’ of the modern organization. For every problem we create a structure: a new business unit, a new franchise, a new committee, a new task force, a new merger of A and B, a new management team, a restructuring, a new structural or functional conceptual building as ‘the answer’. We have become very good at providing structural solutions to problems that may, for example, require behavioural rather than structural answers. A typical scenario is amalgamating A and B into C because A and B do not talk to each other. We create a new building C, but people still are not talking to each other. (Mind you, we have saved a Sr VP salary).
The Big Ones of the consulting industry have sold us ‘(re)structure’ as the answer to everything. In part because Organization Chart Permutations are an easy thing to do. If you want to be seen doing something, change the structure. Small detail, ‘the building‘ may not be the answer. In fact, ‘the new building’ may be a big distraction and create an illusion of ‘problem solved’ and control.
I am bound to say this because of my background and my own work, but, for every managerial problem, we should look first for a behavioural answer. It’s a good bet.