Three Org Charts

The always-wise Michael Lopp, a.k.a. Rands, recently tweeted:

There are three org charts you must understand as a leader: the org chart, the political org chart, and the technical org chart.

Much of my formal training in educational leadership could've been condensed into those 128 characters. Without understanding the team in place, and both the formal and informal structures that shape that team, a leader has no hope of effectively managing significant change.

After reading this, I spent some time on a recent flight sketching out what those three charts might look like based on the schools in which I've worked. These are specific to my experiences, of course (but no names!), but general enough that I think others who work in schools may appreciate the exercise. These sketches are glossing over countless complexities and nuances, but the point is that it's a good exercise for any school leader to undertake.

The org chart

 The org chart at the private schools with which I have the most experience tends to be very hierarchical.

The org chart at the private schools with which I have the most experience tends to be very hierarchical.

My experience has been primarily at private schools, and the official organizational chart tends to be a pretty simple hierarchy. If a leader is implementing change, they must understand the formal structures within which that change will be happening, and how those structures may be impacted or challenged by the changes. The fact that schools are so hierarchical, with relatively few positions of formal leadership, is a real challenge (more on that below).

The political org chart

 The political org chart can vary widely, but the point is: the head of the organizational structure may not actually have the most influence.

The political org chart can vary widely, but the point is: the head of the organizational structure may not actually have the most influence.

Obviously, this varies widely from school to school (or even from month to month within a school). In my experience, the head of the political org chart may be one of the formal administrators–but perhaps (often?) not the one at the top of the structural org. Just below them are the groups of teachers that wield quite a bit of political sway. These tend to be veteran teachers, though "veteran" could mean four years or twenty-four years, depending on the context.

Some of these teachers hold political influence because not only do they have history in the institution, but they are well-liked. They may or not be the best teachers or colleagues (cf. the next chart), but most of the faculty and staff enjoy working with them, and so their opinion carries a lot of weight. If these teachers are onboard with a change, it can make things much easier for everybody else to adopt.

There can also be a group of veteran teachers with similar influence because they (or their influence) is feared. These are the teachers who can end a discussion with a well-timed remark or a conspicuous lack of support. If these teachers aren't onboard with a plan, their gravitational pull can make it that much harder for other teachers to buy in.

The skills org chart

 There's a new book written every hour about the skills needed for teaching, but I think most of it falls into mastery of these three categories.

There's a new book written every hour about the skills needed for teaching, but I think most of it falls into mastery of these three categories.

In a school, the "skills" are much more varied than what Rands deals with in his work managing engineers, but they're just as important. There are countless ways to try and make a chart of the various skills that are evident in a school, and even more ways of trying to quantify or label those skills. This overly simple chart is just meant to show the obvious–there exist among teachers different skill levels. Again, if a leader is working to effect change, they will need to understand the skills of the people undertaking the change.

I think it would be a good exercise for any leader to try and sketch out their own versions of these three charts, both in general terms like I've done, but also thinking of the specific individuals in the organization. The real value comes in examining where the various charts align, because that's where conflict can arise, particularly while managing change.

  • Is the person at the top of the org chart also at the top of the political or skills charts? If not, what does that mean for the leader's chances of success?
  • What are the political forces that will need to be onboard for any change to succeed? Understanding the political org chart would be helpful in conducting a force field analysis.
  • Are some of the most-skilled people at the bottom of the org chart or the political org chart? That's a recipe for disgruntled employees and a culture of mediocrity (at best).
  • What's the Venn diagram of overlap between these charts? If somebody is near the top (or bottom) of one, two, or three of these charts what does that mean for that individual and for the institution?
  • Is the leader's view of these charts the same as the individuals in the organization? Are there people who see their role differently than the organization as a whole sees them?
  • What if somebody is a great teacher, a leader within the school, but does not want to leave the classroom to become an administrator? What are the structures in place for talented employees to grow and to benefit the community in broader ways, without them choosing an entirely new field?
  • Who is around the table when the big decisions are being made? Those at the top of the org chart, the political chart, or the skills chart? If somebody is at the top of the political or skills chart but not involved in decision-making, how much support and expertise will there be for implementing those decisions?

On that last point, I recently read a passage from Kim Scott's Radical Candor that illustrates this very clearly (emphasis mine):

In his book A Primer on Decision Making, James March explains why it’s a bad thing when the most “senior” people in a hierarchy are always the deciders. What he calls “garbage can decision-making” occurs when the people who happen to be around the table are the deciders rather than the people with the best information. Unfortunately, most cultures tend to favor either the most senior people or the people with the kinds of personalities that insist on sitting around the table. The bad decisions that result are among the biggest drivers of organizational mediocrity and employee dissatisfaction.

Any leader who doesn't understand these three org charts and how they interact in their institution is likely going to have a bad time.