The Family Plan

The family is one of nature's masterpieces.
  -- George Santayana

What is the role of families in society? Whatever it is, the family has persisted for thousands of yours, despite periodic efforts to change it. The so-called "nuclear family"-mother, father, kids-remains the basic functional unit, the building block of society.

The "extended family"-the nuclear unit plus other relatives, such as grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and so on-has been just as persistent.

The family is a successful model of organization. It gets things done. It has inherent stability. And it is, in the most fundamental sense, self-perpetuating.

Makes me wonder: Why is it largely ignored as a model for business organization? Instead, the most widely-used model is the hierarchical pyramid. But the pyramid, like the ancient Egyptian manifestation of the same shape, is a place where great things are buried-a tomb.

Families are not hierarchical. Even in large and extended families, anyone who needs anything goes directly to the person who has the authority and the resources to help. By contrast, hierarchical organizations have a "chain of command."

Here's a big difference between families and hierarchical organizations: Families have a life cycle. Kids are born, grow up, leave home, and start their own families. Parents who were caretakers grow old and die; their name and values are perpetuated by their children.

But pyramids persist. Hierarchies hang on, long after their original function is fulfilled. They seem to acquire a life of their own, and find reasons to remain in existence.

I've been rereading In Search of Excellence, by Tom Peters and Bob Waterman, the first business best-seller. Published in 1982, it sold millions of copies-and is probably responsible for the explosion in business consulting firms and services since then. It still has a lot to teach us.

But one thing it definitely did not teach us is how to make organizations "excellent." A follow-up article in Business Week of November, 1984, pointed out that fully half of the companies designated as "excellent" in that book in 1982 no longer met the excellence criteria-and nobody knew exactly why, or how they had changed!

The eight criteria of excellence are:

1.    A bias for action. The ability to make decisions quickly.
2.    Close to the customer.
3.    Autonomy and entrepreneurship.
4.    Productivity through people.
5.    Hands-on, value driven.
6.    "Stick to the knitting."
7.    Simple form, lean staff.
8.    Simultaneous loose-tight properties.

But none of these excellent concepts are the principle of excellence. A principle is "a comprehensive and fundamental law, doctrine, or assumption," says Webster. That is, the principle of excellence is the concept without which excellence cannot happen.

What makes an organization "excellent" is a structural distinctive: Excellent organizations are structured like families, or groups of families.

If you are careful to meet all eight criteria on the list above, and omit to structure your business properly, you may have a working business, but you won't have an excellent one.

Excellence can only blossom where the structure encourages the criteria to blossom. The proper criteria may be the agreed-upon ideals of the company, but their expression is hampered if the most fundamental aspect of the company-its structure-is incompatible with their expression. Excellence can't happen unless it has structural support.

It was a shock to me to reread that Peters and Waterman had decided to exclude company structure from their considerations when writing In Search of Excellence.

"Indeed, many friends outside our task force felt that we should simply take a new look at the structural question in organizing…. We chose to go another route. As important as the structural issues undoubtedly are, we quickly concluded that they are only a small part of the total issue of management effectiveness." (In Search of Excellence, page 8)

This reflection on the part of the authors appears within a context in which they mistakenly observe that there are only two paradigms of organization-hierarchy and matrix-and consider the muddle that seems to follow attempts at hybridizing the two.

However, in many fields of knowledge there are three natural-seeming structural models. In database systems, for example, we have hierarchical data structures, relational data structures (which correspond to the "matrix" form of organization), and network data structures (such as semantic networks), which represent the "extended family" form. Similar sets of models occur in electricity and chemistry.

Sadly, the inadequacy of hierarchies and matrices to describe or prescribe structures that would yield "excellence" led the authors to pursue "softer" and more complex understandings of how people work together in large groups.

Since 1982, N'omi and I-without realizing it-had taken the advice of Peters and Waterman's friends, researching "a new look at the structural question in organizing." We believe, with Dee Hock (founder of Visa International), that "simple, clear purpose and principles give rise to complex and intelligent behavior. Complex rules and regulations give rise to simple and stupid behavior."

We believe that structure is destiny. Thus, the failings of the pyramid and the matrix-well-documented elsewhere, and noted by Peters and Waterman-are in fact not merely coincidental to those structures, but made inevitable by them. Excellence requires a living and dynamic structure-that of the family.

Graphically, we portray the family model as a "dandelion puff." In the dandelion, each seed is directly connected to the center-just as in a family, every child is directly "connected" to the parents.

All of the "excellent" organizations were, and are, project-oriented. In them, organization is treated like fire-powerful, but dangerous and in need of control. A bare-minimum administrative framework can provide a place in which the family/dandelions can be formed, accomplish their purposes, and disperse-to then form more dandelions/families.

If you are structuring-or restructuring-an organization, consider the family as a model.