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I’m not a big fan of organisation charts. I’ve seen a number of organisations, and worked with some very nice people, who try to document how an organisation is structured, but they almost always fail to encapsulate reality.

I’ve become more aware of this as Akvo has grown towards 50 people – we’re getting very close to that figure now. A fair amount of time has been spent this autumn working on formal documents related to our work, important documents that our supervisory board wants to see, to help them understand the organisation. I’ll admit I’ve not been hugely involved – I’m not sure if I didn’t seem interested, or Thomas knew I wasn’t very interested, or if people knew that if they asked me, I’d express my dislike for “strategy” documents and org charts. I suspect it was the latter.

Helping conceive an organisation like Akvo from its earliest seeds, and then playing a role in shaping it to a state, seven years on, of about 45 staff, spread all over the world, is a curious experience. A few weeks ago we had the entire organisation come together in Amsterdam. I found it quite emotional really, for a whole bunch of reasons. One is that Peter van der Linde announced he’s moving to the other side of the world, to establish our South East Asia operations. This wasn’t a surprise – he’s been talking to me about it for ages. But now that it’s happening, the reality is sinking in. Peter and I have had one of the most creative and productive professional relationships of my life – based principally on trying to impress each other. We both appreciate what the other is clever at doing, and we enjoy seeing how far we can push our ideas into reality. The thing about Peter is that it’s not about big steps or ratified plans – it’s thousands of tiny incremental pieces, that get talked about, made sense of and somehow lined up – “aligned”, as he would prefer to say. We talked about this as we looked back across the canal towards our office one sunny morning that week, realising how we had 50 people in there, all together, and that this is real. So I’m going to miss him being around, and I’m going to have to find someone else to show off to, instead.

But there were other things that struck me too. Seeing such a diverse range of people, who really want to work to achieve something important, and watching them all make sense of how they fit together, made me realise that the game has changed. A company of 50 people is very different from a company of 25, which is what we had not much more than a year ago. Being big risks being complex, and I’m always mindful about what I can do to make a big company feel simple and fresh.

I’ve worked in a number of organisations over the years that have made the transition from 25 to 50 people with varying degrees of success. One of the strange things about this jump is how often people want to bring in ideas that are associated with “big companies”. This is understandable. They perceive their job as being to help a small company become big. But spend any time in a big company, and you’ll hear lots of talk of wanting to behave like a small company. And a great many people in those firms wish they were in a 10 or 20 person startup, not somewhere with 500 people. So I think really the goal is to make a “big organisation” work well, while still making it feel small. This is all made even more interesting by the fact that we are in a rapidly changing landscape in terms of how organisations work. So much of the management theory I learned at Aston Uni in my early ’90s degree is now not much use. In fact I’ve spent most of the past twenty years working to unlearn all the ’80s management theory that was thrust down my neck. 2013 is a gigantically different place to 1993 in terms of organisation, skills, communication and social interaction. And we’re doing it for what Thomas Bjelkeman terms a “tiny multinational”, with diverse staff right across the globe.

Another factor is how you maintain trust. Trust takes time to build, but is very easy to break, and as an organisation changes it’s really easy to upset people, perhaps because they feel excluded from something, or because there is a different sense of underlying assumptions from different people, about what the organisation’s purpose is, what their role is, and what the roles of others are. But things like this will happen now and again, inevitably, and it’s just a case of getting on and fixing them. 

So I’m trying to understand how we make a 100 person team (which we could be within a few years) work better than a 50 person one. When I say “work better”, I don’t mean “work more”. Of course it should do more – that’s a matter of adding labour. But how can it be more productive, more creative, produce better products, build better relationships, and most importantly do a better job of bringing out the talent of its people.

Two kinds of relationship

I was explaining recently to my team that I think there are only two kinds of relationship that matter. The first is this:

twopoints_850

This first one is really important. Because it’s about how energy and ideas and trust flow between two people. You can’t have a successful organisation without lots of these relationships.

The second kind is this: threepoints_850

This kind is crucial, too. It’s actually forged by connecting three of the first kind of relationship, and is extremely powerful in terms of problem solving and mobilising action and support. Crucially, this kind of relationship helps the first kind endure, because it tackles or smooths out conflict. You can basically configure an organisation completely built on these two kinds of relationships, with the ability to infinitely extend these structures. I’m sure my friends Chris (Holtslag) and Vinay (Gupta) can explain to me the geometric, more profound meaning of this. But for me, it’s just two simple diagrams.

I sat the other day and looked at the formal organisation chart of Akvo. I decided to draw lines on it, representing the one-to-one connections I had felt at the team week outside of the ones I’m expected to have in the organisation. These are people with whom I felt a real connection, that I feel I could really do things with. I then asked Linda and Jo here in London, on my team, to do the same. The result is this chart, which I think is akin to a telephone switchboard, or old wiring diagram.

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So as we move forward, I’m thinking more about how we’re wired than how we’re structured. I think it’s a key thing we need to harness during the next stage of our growth. And it’s very relevant to this extraordinary era, where we can connect and collaborate in unprecedented ways, but face so many options around what to do next, and with whom.

Mark Charmer is a co-founder of Akvo, and is communications director. Photo: Akvo team. Amsterdam, Wednesday 4 December 2013. (Loïc Sans)