Where’s the White Space in Your Organization?
Most companies organize vertically. The CEO sits on top and subordinate corporate roles report up the chain of command.
Take a look at the typical org chart and you’ll see this thinking played out on paper. There’s only one problem: customers don’t experience your company vertically. They experience it horizontally.
To your customers, the chain of command is irrelevant. What your customers care about is whether or not different parts of your business communicate effectively with one another.
Let’s say I order a pair of high-end hiking boots for a planned trek up the Kilimanjaro. Does the shipping department know that I want the boots tomorrow instead of next week? Or what if I have to return them because they don’t fit correctly? Will the customer service rep have a record of my purchase? And will I be able to get a new pair before I leave for Africa?
This example – admittedly simplified – gets at the problem of “white space.” Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about it.
“White Space … is the area between the boxes in an organization chart or the area between the different functions: Very often no one is in charge or responsible for the White Space. The important handoffs between functions are happening here, and this is very often the area where an organization has the greatest potential for improvements.”
White space, in other words, is about cross-functional coordination within the enterprise. Do it poorly and you’ll be surprised at the problems it can cause. If I don’t get my boots in time for my African trek, for example, I’m going somewhere else – and you’ve just lost a customer.
In a sense, it all comes down to focusing on the customer. The goal is to deliver consistent customer experiences where customers feel like they’re dealing with a single entity rather than a collection of independent actors.
Yet some companies take this idea in the wrong direction with the concept of the “internal customer.” Here, groups treat one another as they would any other customer. The hope is to foster cross-functional harmony – but in the end it simply fosters an inward-looking organization.
It’s always better to keep your eye on your real customers – and to do whatever you can to keep them happy. One method that works well is to form smaller cross-functional units within the enterprise where different roles come together – all benefiting from direct customer contact. For example, you may put sales reps, engineers and financial management people in a single division focused on, say, small businesses. Thus when a sales rep hears back from a customer that something doesn’t work, the engineer – or somebody else on the team – hears it as well. The idea is simple: put more people in front of the customer. In the end, this makes your organization more customer-focused.
For a deeper dive into this subject, see the book that started it all: Improving Performance: How to Manage the White Space in the Organization Chart by Geary A. Rummler and Alan P. Brache.