For years, people thought organizations were like machines. When something misfired, you simply found the broken cog and swapped it out for a new one (even if that cog happened to be a person).

Just as with machines, some parts of organizations were considered more important than others. An organization can't function without a strong CEO, the reasoning went, just as a car can't run without an engine. So you worked hard to make sure the players at the top were second to none.

When things went wrong, you reconfigured parts. It was incredibly satisfying: Lock yourself in a room with organizational charts and flip charts; draw alternative structure designs; and then announce the chosen configuration. Presto! A new organization. A shiny, bright future.

Organizations Aren't Machines

The problem is that organizations aren't machines. Swapping malfunctioning cogs for new ones usually doesn't work. Even replacing an entire system, like an entire sales department, often doesn't work. Too often, the new sales team falls into the same pitfalls that the old one did.

Rather than adopting a new structure, people revert to what they know (especially in times of stress). People often replicate previous work patterns within the new order. That's because all organizations have something just as powerful and important as hierarchy that doesn't respond well to reorganization or cog replacement. They have networks.

Networks Trump Organization Charts

We're born into our first network, our web of family relationships. We soon form our friend network through social relationships at school. As we grow, we instinctually and habitually create networks that support new interests (such as scouting, dance, or soccer), new environments (like college or a move to a new city), and new jobs.

The most well-known work web is the grapevine. This is the informal mechanism through which rumor, gossip, and news spread quickly and without formal oversight. However, work networks extend far beyond gossip. They're used for solving problems, making decisions, developing new ideas, and even getting routine work done. They're deeply important, and they're part of every organization.

When a company reorganizes, it moves around the boxes, but it doesn't address the network underneath it all. Employees go to the people they trust and the colleagues they know will help them out. They bypass the new organization and instead reach out to their long-standing allies and resources. Their networks -- their trusted, tried-and-true relationships -- trump the organization chart.

Don't Restructure. Rewire.

Organizations love to restructure the boxes. But they don't address the wiring that goes through, among, and between the boxes. This wiring consists of all the relationships that people build to get things done. Without addressing the wiring, change can’t occur.

If you think your organization is ready for a tune-up, consider this:

  • The problem might not be the boxes but the wiring. Sure, you can change the office layout or reporting relationships. But in a crunch, people will follow the well-trodden wires that connect them to trusted colleagues. If you're not changing the relationships, people will replicate old interaction patterns. 
  • Rewiring takes time and involvement. Here's where the electricity metaphor falls apart. We can't hire electricians and expect them to rewire relationships for us. Instead, rewiring takes time and involvement. People need opportunities to form new relationships. They need to see why rewiring is important and understand how rewiring will help move the organization to a better place.
  • The easy work doesn't often doesn’t address the hard issues. Attempts to transform an organization through a well-reasoned restructuring probably won't achieve the desired results (although you probably will feel a deceptive rush of endorphins from identifying the perceived "perfect" structure). Instead, do the hard work: Help people build and sustain the relationships they need to be successful in order to make good decisions, solve problems, and move the organization forward.

Have you seen reorganizations achieve the desired goals? What did the organization do to address the networks in these cases?