How to Successfully Implement a Decentralised Organisational System

As an IT Project Manager, I have the opportunity to work on different projects with various clients, suppliers, and business functions. It allows me to observe and learn how different businesses, departments and teams actually operate.

I have always been interested in how organisational structure can impact projects. So often project success or failure is predetermined by a company’s organisational structure and its culture. Another important determining factor could be the culture of relationships with parties involved in the process, such as clients, partners and providers.

When we think about why projects sometimes go wrong, there could be multiple reasons including:

  • a lack of project vision
  • unclear goals
  • lack of ownership
  • poor communication
  • an inefficient decision-making process
  • unclear roles
  • stakeholder participation

However, I believe all these are symptoms of poor organisational structure. In order to do their job, employees need to have the right information, resources and skill sets. A good organization creates an environment that facilitates development and enables employees to do their job efficiently.

In the age of global markets and a dynamically-changing business environment there is more of a need for a robust organisational process than ever before. The business structure is getting more complex and interconnected whilst markets are more demanding and require better and faster responses. Dynamic markets and uncertainty, political, economic, environmental and regulatory factors and increased competition make the operating landscape more complex than ever before.  But they can all be countered through human mastery and having a robust organisational process.

Recently, I read a book called ‘Organise for complexity’ by Niels Pflaeging (2014) where Niels talks about organisational transformation and how to design a high-performing organisational structure for dynamic markets.

The author compares both centralized and decentralised organisational structures and suggests that a decentralised organisational system is far more effective than a centralised one in a complex operating environment. He defines several major managerial principles and provides practical guidance for designing a decentralised system in a complex business environment.

There are many books and materials out there on the subject of organisational structure and decentralised systems. However, what I really liked about Niels’ book is the simplicity and practicality of his materials. What follows are a couple of key takeaways from the book.

Top-led vs. decentralised decision making

In a traditional centralised organisational structure, decision-making authority is concentrated at the top, where executives make decisions based on the information supplied from the middle and bottom levels. This creates a controlled environment where information flow and decision-making falls into hierarchical boundaries.

This model works well in a slow-paced environment, ensuring stability and control over business operations. However, in dynamic markets, where fast decisions and actions are required, this model can become destructive as it can cause delays in communication and impact the quality of decisions.

In a decentralised structure, all levels of management and business functions share decision-making authority between them. Employees are empowered to take decisions and become accountable for their results. The decision-making process is transferred to people who are close to the business area where the decision takes place, and hence can make better and faster decisions. Also, it increases employee morale as they feel empowered and accountable for the success.

So, in a complex and dynamic environment where the speed of response is vital for the business success, a decentralised system is far more effective than a centralised one.

While the benefits of a decentralised system in a complex environment are clear, implementing it can be a challenge. For the decentralised structure to work it is important to ensure that employees have the right information, understand the business’ vision and have access to the right resources in order to take action. Here are my top 3 takeaways on how to design a decentralised system for a complex environment:

1. In a complex environment, business value comes from networks of value-creating teams – not individuals or departments

“In complexity, working on separate parts doesn’t improve the whole. It actually damages the whole.” Niels Pflaeging

Niels argues that there is a big difference between “departments” and “teams” as an organisational entity. A department is defined as a group of people who share the same skill-set and belong to the same specialist area. Departments work in parallel with each other. They are driven by internally-set departmental goals and KPIs, and quite often have their own budgets as well. This can often lead to isolated behaviour and a competition  between departments, where true value creation becomes impossible.

According to Niels, “Value creation is never the result of individual action, but of inter-action: It is a team-based process of working “with-one-another-for-each-other.” Niels suggests that in dynamic markets the true value creation happens with cross-functional teams working in an interconnected network, where success is defined by the value created across the whole network and all stakeholders across the business.

In this model, a team is comprised of people with cross-functional skills and are fully empowered to behave as ‘entrepreneurs’ – owning a task or a project while the knowledge and information gets shared with the network of specialist groups, or what we call “departments.”

2. Empowered teams rather than empowered individuals

Empowered teams are characterised by autonomy and shared ownership and accountability between all team members. Everyone in the team has a clear role and contributes to the process of collective decision making. Niels highlights that. in a decentralized system. there are no ‘hierarchical positions’ but everyone in a team has a defined ‘role’ which is associated with “expected behaviour” and relates to a particular organisational status.

For example, the expected behaviour of a team leader would be to promote the right principles and create an atmosphere where the team is empowered and has everything needed to do their job well. This is very different from a command and control style where leaders dictate and control because their positions prescribe it.

Also, very often delegation is equated with empowerment. However, there is a fundamental difference. Delegation is focused on assigning tasks, while empowerment actually grants authority to own a task, shape ideas and make decisions. With empowerment comes accountability for results.

3. The role of leaders is to promote a healthy environment for people to do their job

In a decentralised system decision making is shifted from leaders and managers to value-creating teams: people who are close to the problem.

The role of leaders is focused on shaping the overall business vision and creating an environment for the decentralised organisational structure to work efficiently. The main focus of leadership is on driving the value creation mechanisms by promoting the right principles, ensuring that the network of teams and specialist groups work collaboratively and efficiently in a transparent manner, attracting talent and creating the right environment for development.

In other words, the role of leaders is to promote a healthy environment for people to do their job.

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