You Can’t Get There From Here:
Why “Structural” Changes Won’t Cut It
by Lawrence E. Wharton

Top managers have bought far too heavily into the idea that adjustments in structural components will solve major organizational problems or produce much higher levels of performance. Certainly structure is important. But it alone, without an examination of the behavior that underlies it, will produce little of lasting benefit. One need only look at a list of recent effectiveness initiatives that have failed to provide espoused benefits: TQM, re-engineering, customer service, teams, spirit-based leadership, and learning organizations.

Organizational structure has many facets to it, and it operates at many levels. Structure does not mean simply the organizational chart showing titles and who reports to whom. It is far more than that. At the top of the organization, for example, the main structural elements include:

  • Vision
  • Mission
  • Major Goals
  • Operating values (excellence, openness, customer service)
  • Improvement processes (TQM, re-engineering)
  • Key metrics (units produced, sales, profit)

The main structural elements may have microstructures to help with implementation: budgets, compensation methods, committees, staff meetings, coordination methods, standard procedures, communication techniques, performance evaluation programs, and training.

Admittedly I am using “structure” very broadly, and you may or may not agree with my categorization. But that doesn’t matter much. What does matter is the idea that leaders have tried innumerable methods, models, and techniques to raise effectiveness (we seem to have at least one per year!), everything from quality circles and MBO to reengineering and spirit-based leadership. And the results, in a nutshell, have been less than stellar. My contention is that those initiatives have failed to deliver, not because they were seriously flawed approaches, but because leadership added them to the organization without first fixing already existing, and often deeply-rooted behavioral problems or dynamics.

Organizational success requires that management develop important “structural” elements such as those above, and do so with care and  deliberation. Further, these “structural” elements must be clear, understood in approximately the same way by all within the organization, and perceived by all staff as having significance (meaning) for them. Even a wonderfully crafted and beautifully clear vision or mission, for example, will have little impact if it has no meaning for staff. A poorly crafted and unclear one is obviously a totally lost cause. Top managers especially must be very careful not to assume that their passion for a mission, goal, TQM, etc., will automatically be shared by all. Each employee determines what will have meaning for him or her; managers cannot impose meaning on anyone. 

Some managers have the idea that they can deal with problems within the firm through changes in “structural” elements. For example, top management may wish to improve inadequate customer service. Perhaps it undertakes to train staff in the how’s of quality customer service. In addition, the organization’s leader speaks passionately about the need for better customer service and what this means for the firm. Finally, motivational cards and plaques adorn the workplace, reminding workers constantly of the need for ever-better service to customers. There is minor improvement resulting from all this, and shortly customer service is back to where it was. What happened? 

Simply, management undertook “structural” changes but failed to examine the basic reasons why customer service was poor. It could be that the unit’s supervisor is a disaster; it could be that a few informal leaders in the unit are angry at the firm for some past slight; or it could be that the workers feel they are not paid enough or listened to. Attempting to improve the overt problem — poor customer service — without addressing the underlying causes, often behavioral, produces little of value, and certainly does not improve customer service.

Developing mission or vision statements to unite staff is an example. Or, a certain manager may be very territorial, and the method of treating this problem may be to send him to training. Or top management may feel that a new committee will aid significantly in developing employee commitment to a new performance appraisal process. Or leaders may conduct a climate survey with the legitimate desire to improve the well-being of employees. Lastly, managers may embrace a highly-touted improvement initiative, such as self-directed teams or, more recently, becoming a knowledge-based organization.

These do not at first sight appear to be unreasonable approaches to common organizational situations. But they seldom accomplish the improved effectiveness management expects. All of the above are illustrations of efforts to bring about change through altering “structural” elements to deal with issues or problems that involve, or are caused by, behavior. The difficulty is not that introducing self-directed teams, new performance appraisal programs, or training is bad. Far from it. They can be very beneficial, but only if leaders realize such programs require significant shifts in behavior, starting with top managers. 

Most often leaders at the top are ready for everyone else to change, but not themselves — hence the very high failure rate of improvement initiatives. Any of these examples illustrates that you cannot make key behavioral changes by legislating new “structural” elements, as admirable as they may be. The alterations in behavior sought by top leaders will not come about and staff will see yet another misguided management effort.

The key to solving many organizational problems or to increasing effectiveness is addressing the underlying behavior that is at the core, and only then adding “structural” elements to reinforce the improvement. And the key to successfully introducing change is for top management to ask itself three vital questions before it undertakes the change:

1. What are the general behavioral implications of this change, for us and for staff?

2. What specific behavioral changes must leadership make to convince staff of our sincerity?

3. How will we ensure (not guess, hope, or assume) lower-level managers will make the behavioral transition?

Leaders must remember that business is done the way it is now because of what they reinforced, intended or not. For business to be done differently, leaders must be the first to change their behavior. 

This is the path to greater effectiveness.

Lawrence E. Wharton is a partner of a leader behavior consulting firm (Wharton and Roi) that focuses on the connection between leaders' behavior and unit/organizational effectiveness. The firm has worked with clients such as Costco, Boeing, Oregon Dept of Health, The Oregon State Bar, Sharp Microelectronics, Portland Community College, The Casey Family Program, and many others. Contact Lawrence E. Wharton, MBA at 3931 E. Skyline Dr. Tucson, AZ 85718, Phone: (520) 577-0823, Fax: (520) 577-3644, e-mail: .

Many more articles on Creative Leadership and Leading Change in The CEO Refresher Archives


Copyright 2000 by Lawrence E. Wharton. All rights reserved.

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