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Organizational Dysfunction: Cause and Effect


Entropy–the tendency of systems to become more disorderly–is a law of nature. That it occurs just as readily in human-designed constructs is, if not a reflection of the laws of physics, at least an amusing coincidence.

Any organization will decay into disorder–or remain disordered if it began that way–without constant effort and vigilance against such chaos.

One of the consistent themes of my career has been to reshape chaos into order. Finding organizations and departments that lack clear structure, I have helped provide it. The results are unsurprising: teams are more efficient and effective when they are given a defined structure. What is often missed in these situations is that, in the absence of a formal, intentional structure, there will always be an informal, unintentional one. It is in identifying and describing these existing, undocumented structures that one can begin to recognize and correct the dysfunctions of an organization.

Stepping away from the jargon for a moment, consider real-world scenarios. How does information enter an organization, and where does it go? This could be explicit information, such as a customer calling a support line, or more implicit information, such as poor sales. Once the information enters the organization, how is it managed to ensure it reaches the right people in a timely manner? And once it reaches those people, how is it responded to? Many of the dysfunctions I have seen have resulted from poor handling of information. So, what causes these deficiencies?

A common cause is a lack of role definition. Consider that any individual in an organization may be exposed to various kinds of information. Not all of it is information that the individual is required to retain or act upon. But unless the individual has a well-defined role that they understand and perform, information may reach them and then go unused or disregarded. Broadly, an organization should have a clear mission, but this does not specify each individual’s role, so each member of the organization must know what information they are responsible for detecting, analyzing, and either acting upon directly or passing it another individual with that responsibility. Using the support line example above, the best practice is to connect the caller with a representative who will read through a defined script and, if necessary, enter a support request into a database so the issue can be tracked. The support representative’s job, then, is to process incoming information and enter it into a system from which it may be reviewed by others. This is a simple case, and often times role definitions are clearest at the organizational boundary. It’s once you get deeper into the organization that roles can become murky, resulting in lost information.

This loss occurs because, in addition to lacking role definitions, there is also a lack of accountability. If someone is responsible for handling certain kinds of information but there are no mechanisms in place to ensure it is handled properly, how does anyone know what’s happening to it? Theoretically, this is why managerial structures exist. Executive-level staff pass their mandates down through layers of management to ultimately be carried out by line employees. However, information must flow in both directions–up and down–to be effective. Poor management can result in poor accountability, which results in lost information. In addition, information must be able to flow laterally, between staff in different groups at the same level of the organization. An example of this would be having a support request passed off to an engineering team to be investigated. Both the support and engineering teams require management to keep the teams on-task and accountable, and the managers enforce standards for passing information between the two teams. When information is not transferred as it should be, the breakdown must be investigated and addressed. Did someone skip a step? Did someone not do their job? Did a technical system malfunction or fail? Corrections must be made to avoid future hiccups.

This all sounds obvious enough, but in practice it becomes difficult very quickly. In my experience, a common cause of these dysfunctions is, ironically, rapid growth. Organizations can be victims of their own success, in that what worked well for a very small team becomes a disastrous state of affairs for a large one. Though perhaps not obvious, it is easy enough to understand when one considers that information diffuses much more readily in a small group than a large one. Another difference between small organizations and large ones is that a small organization is likely to have fewer resources available, in terms of time, labor, equipment, and money. It is also less likely to have a formal structure, so, again, informal structures take shape. In reality, this manifests as individuals serving not defined roles, but often multiple, complex roles. This occurs out of necessity–there simply aren’t enough people that each one can do a highly specialized job and only that job–but it also forms habits that are harmful as the organization grows. People used to wearing multiple hats (so to speak) have a hard time giving them up later. A growing organization may fail to define roles for its staff, and end up with a situation in which job titles and role expectations are essentially meaningless labels. In such a situation, the best course is to define roles and titles that most reflect what each individual does, then organize around those responsibilities and proficiencies. In other words, let the expert on a particular topic be the expert, rather than letting that expertise hide unseen behind a vague title.

But this is a double-edged sword and can create another common organizational problem, namely: information silos. This is a common organizational concept. Information of particular types tends to pool in one individual, and while it is very useful to have experienced experts, their deep but isolated knowledge also becomes a liability. This risk is amusingly (if morbidly) known as the bus factor because it becomes a question of how many team members could be hit by a bus (or struck down by some other calamity, or even just leaving for another position) before the team becomes incapable of functioning due to a lack of skill or knowledge. Any team or organization with a bus factor of one is essentially a ticking time bomb. The bus factor can be raised through good documentation standards, cross-training personnel, and relying on industry best practices rather than deep, home-grown knowledge. The problem is that all of these take discipline and deliberate effort to implement, and in a busy organization where resources are hard to spare, insurance against future disruptions tends to be prioritized lower than serving the core mission of the team.

As much of a struggle as it is, these are necessary steps for an organization to best carry out its mission–whatever that may be. Changing an entrenched culture of disorganized behavior is, to put it mildly, very difficult, but adapting rapidly to changing circumstances is the only way to survive in today’s fast-paced world. The key is managing the flow of information throughout the organization. Detect what’s relevant, direct it to the right people, act on it efficiently, communicate the results, then do it all over again. It’s not easy, but in the long run it’s not optional.

Photo by @HfdsCouncil