Is your informal organization working for or against you?

We recently hosted a small-group discussion with several corporate execs and Jon Katzenbach, author of the longtime bestseller “The Wisdom of Teams.”  In teeing up the conversation, Jon talked about the importance of the “informal organization” in today’s environment.  You couldn’t listen without thinking about the opportunity these organizations represent within their companies.

Among other things, informal organizations are characterized by innovation, motivation and collaboration.  Their power lies in their ability to influence others, to identify and fix things that aren’t working and to make things work better.  They also have the ability to stymie change efforts if they’re ignored. 

According to Jon, informal organizations feature:
• Interactions between loosely defined groupings of people
• Frequent connections because of perceived common interests
• Desire to share or accomplish something they feel strongly about
• Emotional outcomes that can affect their behavior or the behaviors of others they work with

Informal managers also typically outnumber formal managers four to one.  In other words, there is a vast corps of unofficial leaders in every organization and they wield great influence.  They represent an active and powerful network that can be a great source of insight and can amplify or undermine management’s message.  Without calling them “informal organizations,” our clients have used them in internal branding efforts with great success.  Unfortunately, most corporate communication infrastructures are designed to rely on formal channels. 

To tap into the informal organization you have to find it, though.  Look for the go-to people who know how to get things done, who connect with colleagues on an emotional level and are sought out for advice, people who spend meaningful portions of their time supervising tasks outside of reporting lines and who want to make people around them feel good about the work they do.  Engaging these people in vigorous two-way conversation could raise the impact of any company’s internal dialogue. 

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