Org charts are tailor-made to KILL new ideas.

Think about it.

Picture an org. chart.

The org. chart is all about channels up and down. There aren’t even any lines between departments or business lines.

It is a tyrannical master – in both perception and in practice. This became very visible to me in the last few days as we facilitated meetings with two different cross-functional leadership teams.

We spent the first part of the week at Flexera, a software company that has come to define its purpose as “re-imagining how software is built, bought, managed and secured.”

Jim Ryan, the CEO of Flexera, is on a mission to engage his people in a new way. He’s asking them to step in and step up, to challenge the status quo, to push back on him and the senior leadership team, to take leadership rather than waiting for it to be granted.

Jim knows that Flexera can’t do something as big as re-imagining the software supply chain if everyone in his organization isn’t actively challenging the status quo – inside and outside of the company.

Yesterday I was in a meeting with the leadership team of a large nonprofit organization that is re-imagining place-based, collaborative social service delivery. The starting point is collaboration between the different people, programs and functions that make up the organization’s work.

They are in a CEO transition, making it even more critical that everyone in the organization step up and take on a new and more expansive role in the big work of re-imagining how they can have a more meaningful impact on the communities they serve.

Two aspects of the tyranny of the org. chart.

First, those up and down channels come with very definite expectations about what people will do or say and what they won’t do or say. “Sticking my neck out” is a phrase we use when we contemplate challenging the status quo up the chain of command.

There is no shared expectation that challenge is welcome or encouraged. (And we all have stories of when challenge was not welcomed or appreciated.) People don’t feel like they can challenge the status quo and leaders don’t know how to respond when they do.

And second, we’re so caught up in our own vertical slice of the org. chart (a.k.a. silo) that we lose sight of the incredibly valuable experiences, perspectives and expertise of everyone else in the company. There are no naturally occurring opportunities to move across those silos.

Getting out from under the tyranny of the org. chart demands that leaders encourage and accept challenges to the status quo (and hence, to their own leadership) and it requires real cross-functional dialogue and shared experience (not just cocktail parties).

You can find some perspectives on leaders’ roles in encouraging others to step up and step in the Encourage Chapter of Finding Time to Lead. If you’d like some ideas for ways to create cross-functional dialogue, send me an email (leslie@elementspartnership.com).

What can you do to demonstrate that your organization has what it takes to break free of the tyranny of the org. chart? My challenge to you is to do that – don’t just talk about it.

-Leslie

P.S. Thanks for the great feedback on last week’s “Leadership in La La Land” post!