Traditional organizations contain a lot of local optimizations such as a relentless pursuit to optimize individual output. How can we structure our organization with more focus on the whole product?

“Culture follows structure” is the fourth of “Larman’s Laws of Organizational Behavior.” People in organizations are skilled at showing support to the flavor-of-the-month-improvement without doing anything. We have observed this repeatedly. Why does that happen?

Larman’s Laws of Organizational Behavior observes that…

  1. Organizations are implicitly optimized to avoid changing the status quo middle- and first-level manager and single-specialist positions & power structures.
  2. As a corollary to (1), any change initiative will be reduced to redefining or overloading the new terminology to mean basically the same as status quo.
  3. As a corollary to (1), any change initiative will be derided as “purist”, “theoretical”, and “needing pragmatic customization for local concerns”—which deflects from addressing weaknesses and manager/specialist status quo.
  4. Culture follows structure.

Anticipating your thought, it’s also true that structure follows culture… But the phrase is meant to be poetically pithy, not literal.

What do we mean? As long as the structural elements—groups, roles, hierarchy, and policies, or more broadly the organizational system/design—aren’t changed, the behavior and mindset isn’t going to change. The systems-thinking thought-leader John Seddon explains “culture follows structure” this way:

Attempting to change an organization’s culture is a folly, it always fails. Peoples’ behavior (the culture) is a product of the system; when you change the system peoples’ behavior changes.

We have observed many organizations that attempt to adopt LeSS but refuse to change the organizational structure, roles, and policies accordingly. All of them have failed in achieving the full benefits of using LeSS.

Part of the problem is personal safety. Of course people don’t want to lose a job because of a structural change. That’s one reason why LeSS adoption emphasizes the lean thinking principle of Job Safety, but not Role Safety.