What you need to know about the helix organization

Here is an excerpt from an article written by  Aaron De Smet, Sarah Kleinman, and Kirsten Weerda for the McKinsey Quarterly, published by McKinsey & Company. To read the complete article, check out others, learn more about the firm, and sign up for email alerts, please click here.

* * *

Separating people-leadership tasks from day-to-day business leadership can help organizations strike a better balance between centralization and decentralization, reduce complexity, and embrace agility.
The CEO of a major global business, deeply frustrated, took time out recently as a large company-wide reorganization was stumbling toward its conclusion. Hard as he and his top team had tried, he told us, attempts to make collaboration and empowerment an enterprise-wide reality were foundering. Although he had been determined to ensure resources were reallocated across the group more dynamically, people and money remained doggedly stuck in slightly revamped silos. Tensions between the group’s central functions—such as finance, HR, and IT—and the group’s decentralized businesses were continuing to rumble. As he gazed at a new organization chart on his laptop, he scratched his head while trying to make sense of the complex collection of solid- and dotted-line reporting relationships floating across the screen.

As our business environment has become more complex and interconnected, we seem to be replicating that in our organizations, creating complex matrix structures that simply don’t work anymore.

The CEO in question is actually a composite of several with whom we’ve had different versions of this same conversation. Their frustrations, in turn, are similar in spirit to concerns we hear almost daily from many other senior executives. As our business environment has become more complex and interconnected, we seem to be replicating that in our organizations, creating complex matrix structures that simply don’t work anymore. We are overreliant on the same management tools for organization structure that we’ve been using for decades, namely hierarchical org charts with solid- and dotted-line reporting relationships.

There are no easy answers to deep-rooted organizational dysfunction. However, we’re increasingly convinced that there is a simple, exciting, and effective structural model that can replace complex matrix structures and help leaders across industries and geographies who struggle with confused roles and labored decision-making processes, and who feel they are failing to move quickly enough to exploit new market opportunities.

The “helix,” as we’ve dubbed it, is not a new idea. It has been around for decades in professional-service firms and in parts of some large global companies, and more recently in many agile enterprises. But until now, it has lacked a name and clear definition, and its power to unlock organizational bottlenecks and to strike a better balance between centralization and decentralization has never been properly articulated. It is seldom implemented at significant scale, and many organizations that initially embrace it slide back to more traditional (and often less effective) structures. That’s no coincidence. For reasons we will discuss, successfully adopting the helix requires management mind-sets and a talent infrastructure that many businesses do not currently possess.

In a nutshell, the secret of the helix lies in disaggregating the traditional management hierarchy into two separate, parallel lines of accountability—roughly equal in power and authority, but fundamentally different.

One of the two lines helps develop people and capabilities, sets standards for how work is done, and drives functional excellence; the other focuses those people and capabilities on the priorities for the business (including overseeing their day-to-day work), creates value, and helps deliver a full and satisfying customer experience.

By disaggregating the hierarchy and ensuring that for any given set of leadership responsibilities only one person is accountable, we can stop forcing employees to answer to multiple “bosses” who think it is within their purview to perform the same set of leadership functions such as hiring and firing, job assignments, promotions, evaluations, and incentives. All this helps to preserve unity of command, reduce tension, increase speed and flexibility, and more effectively confront the challenges the matrix was meant to address in the first place.

In this article, we aim to clarify when and where the helix model is most likely to be actionable, elaborate on which problems it helps overcome, and explain how executives can break out of some of the old ways of thinking that undermine organizational effectiveness. Helix-like approaches are part and parcel of agile organizations, but they also have applicability elsewhere. More than just an experimental alternative to traditional ideas about management and accountability, we’re becoming convinced that the helix will be seen, increasingly, as a legitimate and at times indispensable organizational approach.

Beyond the matrix

The helix is perhaps best understood in the context of matrix organizations that attempt but often struggle to integrate the functional, geographic, channel, and product units of large companies and that, after decades of experience, are now deeply anchored in today’s people-management systems and culture.

Existing matrix roles typically have one primary “boss,” identified by a solid line on the organization chart, and a secondary one, depicted by a dotted line. The first boss is primary in the sense of holding resources and controlling the budget and tends to be responsible for hiring, firing, promotions, and evaluations—as well as for the direction, supervision, and prioritization of daily work.

Inspired by the distinctive, double-stranded shape of DNA that scientists discovered in the early 1950s, the helix, by contrast, decouples people-leadership tasks typically performed by one manager into two sets of tasks performed by two different managers, each of which is equally relevant (exhibit). Crucially, these managers are neither “primary” nor “secondary,” as is the case in the matrix. One boss provides and makes decisions about one set of things (such as hiring and firing, promotions, training, and capability building); the other boss makes decisions about another set of things (such as prioritization of goals and work, daily supervision of task execution, and quality assurance).

* * *

Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Aaron De Smet is a senior partner in McKinsey’s Houston office; Sarah Kleinman is an associate partner in the Washington, DC, office; and Kirsten Weerda is an associate partner in the Munich office.

The authors wish to thank Steven Aronowitz, Christopher Handscomb, and Carolyn Pierce for their contributions to this article.

Posted in

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.