The function of functions

What do a captain, a cook and a carpenter have in common?

They all work aboard a ship, and they each have their own tasks and responsibilities: navigating the ship, preparing the meals and making repairs when necessary.

They relate to each other as a hierarchy: the captain is in charge. And even though they each have a different task, they work together like a well-oiled machine.

We’ve always kept using that system without ever critically reconsidering it. Look at any large company: it’s a hierarchy with many different departments and even more different functions.

The purpose of these was once to reduce the complexity of the system. A means to achieve simplicity. Nowadays, hierarchies, departments and functions have become an end in themselves, and frequently a major source of annoyance. They get in each other’s way and disrupt each other. Having too many different functions and departments in an overly large organisation will not work like a well-oiled machine, but will throw sand in the gears.

And while all the departments and the people of various professions keep each other occupied aboard the large oil tankers, they’re being passed left and right by small speedboats. Manned by just one captain, cook and carpenter.

This is why organisations should be kept uncomplicated, and failing that, one should make sure the system of functions and departments actually works properly.

Radio 1, TROS In Bedrijf, asked me to write this column. It was broadcasted today.

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