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What is a good structure? What criteria can we use when developing a structure? Here are some ideas for judging a structure.

A Good Structure:

A good structure facilitates, not hinders, getting work done. It assists the staff to achieve the goals of the organization. How an organization or project structures itself will have an impact on how its people will work together (see below).

A good structure assists the organization monitor and deal with meeting its commitments to actors outside of itself (such as funders, governments, communities, etc.) as well as getting the materials and resources (supplies, staff, volunteers, funds, etc.) it needs from its environment .

A good structure will assist the organization monitor changes in environment and adjust to them. In rapidly changing environments where government regulations, funder interest, target groups needs, and/or technology change quickly, the structure should help the organization recognize opportunities and threats and rapidly adjust to them. In a stable environment, the structure should be able to take advantage of the opportunity to develop efficiencies in operations.

Note the implication of this; efficiency and effectiveness do not always go together. In rapidly changing situations, an organization may be effective, but will not be able to become efficient before the situation changes again. Generally, extremely efficient organizations need a stable environment to give them time to learn to be efficient.

A good structure supports the organization's core technology. If the organization's technology is well defined and determined (like McDonald's technology of producing fast food) then a mechanistic structure (full of standard procedures and rules) can be developed to take advantage of the opportunity for efficiency. If the organization's technology is less clearly defined and variable (such as a scientific research department or a typical NGO), then an organic structure (less rules -- more adaptable teamwork) can be developed to promote effectiveness and innovation.

Structure is an important, concrete (if often unconscious) aspect of an organization's culture and beliefs. How the organization structures itself and manages that structure tells us a great deal about the organization's values and management beliefs.

The organizational chart is one "cultural artifact" which helps understand how an organization functions and what it considers important. In essence those sections higher up the picture and in the middle of the page are more important than those lower down or at the sides. A top down, hierarchical, bureaucratic structure tells its employees and observers more about an organization's values than any values or vision statements proclaiming "participation" and the "importance" of employees. In essence, the traditional top down organization chart says quite clearly that those higher up make the decisions for those lower down to implement and are therefore more "important".

The following is not a particularly new idea, but it can be used to test our own concept of organizations. Turn the traditional organizational chart upside down. Put the customer (or target group) at the top, then front line workers under them, and then management under the front line workers. This change in perspective makes the customers and front line workers the most important part of the image. It also emphasizes management's role in supporting the front line workers to achieve the vision and mission of the organization. I have met very few managers and project leaders comfortable with this idea. (It also brings up Dilbert's question of "if the front line workers are the most important people in the organization, how come they get paid the least?" Hmm....)

A key point on structure

There is no one perfect structure. All forms of structures have their strengths and weaknesses. An organization can always solve one set of problems by changing its structure, but the new structure in turn creates a different set of problems. This sometimes leads organizations to change there structure periodically in the search for the "perfect" structure. All structures need "helping mechanisms" in order to work. Helpful mechanisms can include supportive physical layouts, helpful practices, and/or supportive behaviors which facilitate work getting done.

I have seen some pretty bizarre and dysfunctional structures developed by development projects. Generally, the key cause is politics. These projects attempt to gain approval of power holders by 1) creating extra supervisory bodies, 2) including groups for the sake of inclusion, 3) creating excess levels of supervision, and/or 4) un-naturally breaking up units of work. These "solutions" to get approval are bound to be, at the least, managerial headaches, and at the worst, serious barriers to getting work done and meeting objectives.

Strengths and Weaknesses of types of structures

The most straightforward introduction I have found to the strengths and weaknesses of structures is by Marvin Weisbord in Organizational Diagnosis: Six Places to Look for Trouble With or Without a Theory . But I don't need to relate that here because a Cornell sight does it quite well. Check out this site on structure and then come on back for some more on other aspects of structure



Potentials for conflict and communication and coordination breakdowns

One of the main purposes of organizational structures ia to organize communications and co-ordination within the organization. But as can be seen above, there is no one perfect structure which "does it all". Therefore, whatever the structure chosen, there is always potential for intergroup co-ordination problems and conflict. The rule of thumb is that the potential place for these problems is between the "boxes" of the organization chart. Therefore, one way to reduce these problems is to place all the participants of a coordination problem in one "box". But as this is often impossible for the whole organization, other mechanisms need to be employed. Therefore, much of managing any structure is developing mechanism (which a professor of mine called "band aids") to deal with coordination issues. These mechanisms can be both formal and informal. Some common formal mechanisms include periodic staff meetings, interdepartmental task forces, retreats, standard operating procedures, and rules and regulations. Potential helping mechanisms which are "informal" include design and use of the office space, staff lunches, talks during coffee breaks, and staff parties.

The key here is to identify and drop practices and behavior which get in the way of getting the work done and to develop and adopt mechanisms or "band aids" which assist and support the people within the structure to get their work done.

Concluding Thoughts

The structure of an NGO or project has a great, often unseen, impact on how people work together in a project, what the project focuses on, and which parts of the project work better than others. Before getting into OD, I designed structures for a couple of projects without any clue to the impacts of structure. I don't think those structures were bad, but I was lucky as I designed them without any real understanding of structure. I suspect many project officers, country directors, and NGO Directors are in the same boat. They are designing structures based on their own experience, not on any clear understanding of structure. So getting good structures in projects, programs, and organizations is often a hit or miss proposition.


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