SERIOUS: Formal vs. informal organizations

Subject: SERIOUS: Formal vs. informal organizations
From: Andrew Plato <intrepid_es -at- YAHOO -dot- COM>
Date: Sun, 7 Mar 1999 15:17:10 -0800

I was working with a new client last week. I called this person up
and offered to pop over and help her out with some contract and
deliverable stuff. She got all discombobulated with this offer,
saying that their company could not allow me (a contractor) to
interface with a full-timer (her) on unauthorized projects.

"Sheesh, relax!" I thought. "I was merely offering to help."

Okay, I can understand how maybe security/proprietary issues might
incite a response such as her. However, she did not say something
like, "Oh, this is a real hush hush thing, thanks anyway." Her
response was more along the lines of "my company rules do not allow
you to be nice to me."

This highlighted what I saw was a problem with overly-formal
organizations. They become like the Borg from Star Trek. Everything
has its place and there is a place for everything. There is no room
for anything remotely dynamic. Hence, the only way these organizations
grow, is to assimilate smaller more dynamic organizations. A
particular network & virus protection software company comes to mind,
with whom I used to contract.

This also is the problem with style guides and review committees. I
hate style guides, not because they are a bad idea, but because of the
tyrannical authority they exert over a group of writers. There is
always some person who lords over these rules as they were the
commandments from heaven.

It seems to me, that some of the most productive and impressive
organizations I have worked with, have little to no organization.
When I worked at Microsoft a few years back, I was floored with the
chaotic environment at first. No guides, no managers (in the
traditional sense), no hierarchy, just a "get it done or we'll all
die" attitude. Everyone worked too. The managers were all code
cutters and writers. Even the group manager was responsible for
reviewing the code and helping the testers. This was all inside a
mammoth company. Microsoft might be a monopolistic beast, but they
sure have some super-productive people.

When I left Microsoft I went to work for a large (to remain unnamed)
company in Portland. This company had a rule and regulation for
everything. Their writing department spent three months developing a
style guide and templates for this new product line. They had 16
different meetings in the course of a month to review the style
development process.

Naturally, when I showed up I ignored everything, wrote the entire doc
set for the product in two months, and had my contract promptly
terminated for failing to follow the established style guide. Of
course, they kept my documents and used them. Three writers took
another three months applying the approved styles (which were not that
radically different) to my material.

This got me thinking. Why was it that I blazed through a doc set in
two months and they couldn't even move in that short of time? The
writers there were not stupid (some were). They had tool and training
opportunities galore.

That's when I noticed how formal their organization was. Those people
couldn't move an inch with out an intricate series of approvals and
reviews. Thus, any movement became a waste of time. It was easier to
complain about work than to do the work and then get chastised for not
following the rules.

So, what does this little tale reveal? I think the key to successful
organization is personal relationships and not organization. This
seems to be an overwhelming reality I see in business, writing, just
about everything. The closer and more friendly you are with people,
the more productive you can be as a team. Excessive rules and
regulations bog a team down.

People seem to work best when they have personal bonds between the
members of the group. Email and phones encourage abstraction between
people. The client I mentioned earlier has hired contractors from me
and never seen my face! It is no surprise that she does not trust me,
she does not know me! To her I am some disembodied voice on a phone
or words on a monitor. It is easy to mistrust people whom you cannot
see or experience.

I think this is why many organizations are inherently
counterproductive? People become so abstracted the people within the
organization and subsequently the goals of those people, that they
begin to erect bureaucratic structures to handle their inability to
interface with directly with people. Rather than just sit down and
chat about stuff, people establish super-formal processes to deal with
their fears and obsessions with being ?professional? and ?proactive.?

Nevertheless, It may be argued that when an organization hits a
certain size or market saturation point, bureaucracy is inevitable. I
disagree. Consider the Internet. It is a massive bureaucracy, with
thousands of layers of communication, routers, and ISPs. Yet, the
control and command of the Internet is largely passive. As long as
the communications work, nobody sticks their nose in your business.
Has your ISP ever called you up to say ?stop looking at those
inappropriate web sites?? The only time the command of the Internet
springs into action is when there is already a problem, such as bad
connections or fraud from sleazy spammers.

Cannot companies also operate this way? Imagine a company that
allowed you to chart your own course on completing a project. It only
would get in your way when you either missed deadlines or specifically
asked for help. Why must we account for everything when product is
what makes money (or success)? Nobody on the planet is going to care
if you use a 10 point Times New Roman, if the material in the document
is meaningless or confusing. People are going to buy and use a
product or document if it works well and meets their needs. Cutting a
penny of the price of something won?t matter if the product sucks
rocks and looks like a dead horse. Likewise, spending 47 ½ days
fussing over the size of the margins is not going to matter one iota
if the content of the material is useless.

Yet many organization and people preach the gospel of proactivity as a
defense of bureaucracy and excessive planning: ?we have to be
proactive in our approach to ensure we are properly using our
resources.? The tyranny of ?proactivity? has turned people into
analysis-paralyzed drones. In the race to account for everything,
they accomplish nothing.

This is clearly a complex idea that absolutely affects technical
communications. It seems there is a lot of ?formalization? in this
industry, and it might be detrimental.

I am curious about your thoughts on this "informal vs formal" concept.
Mostly, can anyone think up solid, tangible benefits to a
super-formal environment?

Andrew Plato
President / Principal Consultant
Anitian Consulting, Inc.

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