Formal organization structure gets a lot of attention from leaders and organizations, but an often under emphasized aspect of structure is linkages. Linkages are the informal mechanisms or structures that facilitate decision making, resource sharing, and work coordination across organizational boundaries. They are often necessary because the formal structure of an organization doesn’t always facilitate how work happens or needs to happen. Linkages create a way for people and teams that are not connected through the formal hierarchy to come together and work effectively with each other. We like to refer to them as the connective tissue of an organization.
Because they are less formal than hierarchies, linkages sometimes get overlooked or taken for granted. But, as we explained in a previous post, linkages play a very important role in organization structure and can and should be consciously designed to align with the company’s strategic goals.
There are many ways to create linkages within an organization. For example, a meeting can be a linkage. So can technology, when it is used to flow work or to share information. Ad hoc groups of any kind, such as steering committees or project teams, often function as linkages. You will find linkages anywhere you have people from diverse parts of the organization coming together with shared goals and working toward the same outcome. In fact, the shared goals themselves are a type of linkage.
The Dark Side of Linkages
Linkages are essential for the vital flow of information, resource sharing and decision making within an organization. However, it is possible to have too much of a good thing. One problem that can occur with linkages is that they sometimes get put in place to compensate for poor organization structures. They also tend to have a magnetic quality – organizations tend to attract more and more linkages over time. It’s not uncommon for organizations to start forming buildups of linkages on top of linkages. In essence large, complex organizations can become “over-linked”.
One organization we worked with kept adding steering committees to help facilitate strategic implementation of their goals. By the time we started working with them, they had about ten different steering committees that were essentially governing the organization, and the system was starting to break down.
For example, at one point they were working on bringing a new product to market. Their head of product development was not on the steering committee in charge of launching that product. As a result of this disconnect, the launch did not go as smoothly as it might otherwise have because the formal leader in the hierarchy was not looped into the steering committee that had been set up to facilitate the new product launch.
When linkages get out of hand, it can create overly complex systems within the organization structure. This can lead to inefficiencies that interfere with productivity and profitability.
Keeping Linkages Under Control
Most commonly, when we redesign an organization we look at adding linkages to facilitate work. But periodically it’s a good idea to assess existing linkages and determine whether they are still working as intended and whether they are adequate to meet the organization’s needs. At times, it becomes necessary to get rid of some linkages and streamline the organization’s system of linkages.
For most companies, it’s a good idea to assess linkages every 12 to 24 months or so. Implementing this 3-step process can be an effective way to do this:
- Identify key linkage needs. What goals need to be accomplished, and where in the organization does collaboration need to happen in ways that are not supported by the formal structure of the organization?
- Create an inventory. Take the time to inventory existing linkages. Your inventory should include the purpose of the linkages, who is involved, and other details.
- Refine and redesign. If the existing linkages don’t line up with needs, either get rid of them or change them so that they do. Of course, if you identify a linkage need that isn’t being met, you can always add one.
When we implemented this process with the company mentioned above, they ended up reducing the number of steering committees to help get the organization operationally back into shape.
Linkages need to be managed just like any other aspect of organization design. When left to grow organically or when allowed to build up unchecked, they can lead to inefficiencies in the organization structure. Taking the time to periodically assess and redesign the linkages within your business will help keep your organization running smoothly and profitably.