Caring structures Vs caring people

Posted: 29th March 2019

This is going to be a bit of a mess. I've been trying to write it for a while (a month and a bit now).

Anyway, in a bid to get this out of the door here are some poorly structured[1] thoughts on caring people Vs. caring structures.

NB I'm using "structures" in a very loose way, covering everything from your org-chart, HR, to internal communications and processes. Probably best described as all the stuff that the org doesn't want to but has to do.

Anyway, people who care are great. If you run an org (or part of one) and it's full of people who care: congratulations! Even so it makes sense to assume no one cares and build your structures accordingly.

Firstly relying on caring people will likely burn them out. Don't do this. It's a shit thing to do, do it too much and you'll run out of people.

Furthermore relying on caring people is risky. Especially when you're growing (or changing) your org. Growing or changing an org will produce additional stress for people who care because:

  • Caring requires awareness of what's going on, as an org grows (or changes) this is harder to do (as there's more to be aware of and less certainty)
  • During change or growth it's likely that the fraction of caring people will go down. This is due to the increased stress from the above but also because new (or recently uprooted) people will be less likely to care.

The combined effect of these two can create a cascade of burn out amongst those who still care as they stop being able to (hence increasing the stress on those who remain).

(Bonus points, if you're trying to grow: the caring people in your org are often those who've helped attract all the new people you're using to grow. Who all joined what had looked like an awesome caring org and that is now, instead, full of burnt out people. Folks will then start leaving making everything much harder.)

A further risk with caring people is that they will likely be unevenly distributed about your org. Ultimately this is unfair, a key resource is only available in certain places. Some teams will end up amazing to work in; others will be weird back waters that everyone wants to leave.

Hopefully I've now convinced you to not build your org on caring people (weird as that sounds). What can we do about it? I don't really know.

I have a couple of broad ideas though. Try to build structures that are:

  • Clear - the aim, what and why of the structure should be understood
  • Flexible - the structure should always be serving its aim, if it isn't: change it. If a new case arises: improve it.
  • Equitable - your processes and structures should treat people fairly and respectfully
  • Navigable - from the outside: you should know where you start in the structure, where you'll end up and what happens between
  • Accessible - your processes and structures should be available to all your employees. If there are pre-requisites they should be clear
  • Discoverable - You've built all this stuff, excellent! Make sure it can be found

This may sound like I'm advocating for thousands of pages of detailed process but I'm not. Structures can be made as needed[2] and they can be as simple as a statement like "employees may work from home once per week" just make sure anyone can later find it. In fact, as with most things, start simple.

Ideally your org should be an excellent place even if no one cares. This means the people that care can care about things that matter[3] - rather than papering over structural and procedural shortcomings. More realistically creating systems that support and empower those that care and will survive their leaving is an important long term strategy.

[1]: oh the irony. [back]

[2]: although things like a code of conduct, hiring/firing policies should be there from the start. [back]

[3]: like their mental health, home-life or what they want. [back]