A Case Against Org Charts
Misunderstandings when Arranging People into a Pyramid
There might be a time and place for Org Charts, but it is not needed when an organization is small.
During the growth of a company, team members naturally start asking for an Organizational Chart (Org Chart). Within a small team, Org charts are more distracting or damaging than they are useful.
There are two common justifications most people cite for wanting an Org Chart.
- People want to see who is in each team or department.
- People want to know who reports to who.
This information should be available but in either case, an Org Chart is a poor representation of both types. For example, a sortable table would be more efficient, searchable, and easier to maintain.
Aside from low solution quality, my primary objection is rooted in the implied information that accompanies this style of visual. It creates new tensions, while poorly solving minor problems.
False Utility. When you show people in a hierarchy, the first instinct is to find yourself. The second instinct is to see who is “below you”. The final instinct is to chart the distance between you and the top. Which of those reactions is constructive? How is it helpful?
Individual Contributor Discontent. Many top performers within an organization are individual contributors. People who do great work but don’t manage anyone. Unfortunately, the only way to “move up” in an Org Chart is through people management, which shouldn’t be true within an organization.
Value Confusion. The “level” of a team member within the organization is easily confused with their value to the organization. While an incorrect assumption, it’s a reasonable misinterpretation. Simply being “higher up” an Org Chart does not necessarily correlate to increased value.
Communication Complexity. Org Charts become a reference for communication workflows. Communication between departments devolves into an inefficient movement of information up and down the chart, since of the most direct path to transmit information.
Promotion Expectations. The growth and movement within small companies is usually nonlinear. Since the needs of the organization change so quickly, team members might back massive jumps around the organization. Tenure and current positions have less impact on upward mobility, career trajectory, or future positions. Org Charts paint a static, linear picture that can cause people to feel entitled to “move up” as a seat becomes available though that may be unlikely.
Org charts may be unavoidable for large organizations, but small or medium-size companies should consider their cost before merely following suit. Just because people ask does not mean it’s healthy for the organization, nor that it’s worth stating or visually representing.
Because it can be created, doesn’t mean it should.
This is especially true when considering what is acknowledged from a corporate, leadership, or executive level. For many companies, the publishing of an Org Chart becomes one of the very few corporate images, which suggests a higher level of importance and visibility.
Instead of sanctioning a corporate Org Chart, leadership can create a defensible position in which an Org Chart can exist but their warnings and concerns are the leading perspectives.
Share the following message with the team and add it to the Handbook under a section titled Org Charts:
If you want an Org Chart, the information is available to piece one together yourself. We have a directory of team members where you can find departments, managers, and job titles.
Effort implies importance.
Due to the many misrepresentations within an Org Chart and how much our beliefs differ from traditional organizations, we don’t deem it worth the effort.
These are our beliefs about organization design:
- Leaders lead, regardless of tenure or title.
- Growth and advancement here are non-linear.
- Access to team members is universal. No backchannelling.
- Management is an organizational need, not a status symbol.
- Results are valued, not hierarchy.
Final note (on Alternative Option)
Yes, people will create their own. (Which, if they cared enough, they could have done all along.) You could even link to versions others have created, but it doesn’t have to come from top-down.