Rearranging the Deck Chairs

There is an old adage that form follows function.

In his book “The Leader’s Handbook: Making Things Happen, Getting Things Done” (which is great and you should buy it) Peter Scholtes builds on that idea.  He shows how the different parts of an organisation interact, one level following and supporting the next:

One level follows the next

  1. A company has a purpose.  That is the top level, its reason for being.  Under Steve Jobs, Apple’s purpose was to “delight customers“.
  2. Systems follow purpose, systems are the way the work flows to meet the purpose: Product Development and the Supply Chain are systems that help an organisation deliver its purpose.
  3. Functions follow systems, functions are the way the work is grouped: Marketing and Operations are functions that support the Product Development System.
  4. Capabilities follow functions, capabilities are the skills that a function needs to do its work, capabilities could be down to the people or the equipment: Risk Assessment is a capability, so is Programming.
  5. Jobs follow capabilities, jobs are the way in which the capabilities are delivered.  A Programmer will do your Programming.
  6. Structure follows jobs, structures are the way in which the jobs are managed and arranged, reporting relationships, teams, policies and procedures.
  7. Personnel follow structure, people are how you fill your jobs and structure

Let’s not argue over semantics

Now we could spend a lot of time arguing about the language and the words:

  • Are jobs a lower level then capabilities?
  • Does structure follow and support jobs or is it the other way around?

But the detail isn’t the point and arguing about it would be a waste of time.

The point is that there is a hierarchy of levels or groups in an organisation and it flows from purpose at the top down through capabilities in the middle to people at the bottom.

Some of those levels have greater leverage than others.

Just think about that for a second.  Do you see a hierarchy?

Now here is the killer question…

Where do you get most influence on performance?  By changing your systems and capabilities or reorganising your structures and personnel?

And where do we spend our time?

Is all that activity really improving the situation?  Or is it just changing it?

Are we just rearranging the deck chairs?  What do you think?

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Image by Guille Avalos


  1. James,
    Wasn’t it Deming that said something like: 95% of the problems in business are system driven and only 5% are people driven?

    I believe he was and is right. Probably need to trot him out a bit more regularly to minimise the deck chair arrangements.


  2. Hello James

    99.99% of the time – and this is likely to be an underestimate – the system overpowers the people working in the system. Just take a look at the scandals that have been surfacing in the UK, the latest one being the horse meat scandal.

    Now here is the question do the systems exist independently of us – human beings? Or is there a relationship of mutuality? That is to say that we shape systems, systems shape us, we shape systems.

    Which kind of suggests to me that if we want to change the systems we have to change us, the people. Whilst it may look like we can separate the systems and the people, this is just a trick of our minds. More precisely it is a function of the Western metaphysics working in collusion with the way that our minds see stuff.

    Which is my way of saying that the system and the people in the system are a unity. Work on one and you work on the other. The question then is this one: which people have the capacity to change the system with the minimum of conflict?


    • James Lawther says:

      Yes Maz I agree

      Interestingly though the people who design the system don’t see themselves as part of it or as being responsible for its poor performance, they see that as the fault of the people within the system.

      After all, how could anything that they have designed possibly perform so badly?

      It must be somebody else’s fault.

      Mustn’t it?


      • Hello James
        I find myself to be in total agreement with you. We are a gripped by the delusion that all would be perfect if people just behaved themselves and did what we asked them to do. In our way of being we are each of us Gods. The God syndrome is particularly virulent when it comes to those who have power.

        All the best

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