If Functional Decomposition is Bad, What’s the Alternative?

Scott Francis
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Is Functional Decomposition the worst kind of decomposition, except for all the others?  Or is there something better we can do?

Jaisundar published a blog on the silos that form in our minds, as a result of how humans tend to organize their businesses and organizations.

Within a week, Derek Miers also posted on the subject of functional decomposition

Silo-based thinking is endemic to Western culture — it’s everywhere. This approach to management is very much a command-and-control mentality injected into our culture by folks like Smith, Taylor, Newton, and Descartes. Let’s face it: The world has moved on, and the network is now far more important than the hierarchy.

But guess what technique about 99.9% of us use to fix the problems associated with functional decomposition? You guessed it: yet more functional decomposition. I think Einstein had something to say about using the same techniques and expecting different results. This is a serious groupthink problem!

And you know, he’s right. But what is the alternative, really?  We’ve all seen multi-disciplinary teams break down over time because over time the people on these teams start to reflect the values of their leader. If that leader is a sales person, then even the most technical members of the team begin to adapt – spending more and more time on sales and improving their sales capabilities, rather than on improving their software engineering capabilities – because that’s what the boss rewards.  And if the leader is very technical, then people with less technical skill will either leave the group or attempt to hone their technical talents.  In either case we’re not necessarily making the best use of someone’s skills.  But functional decomposition and organization suffers from the problem of functional excellence at the expense of understanding the wider picture.  

I’m reminded of the phrase – genius of the “and” – because we want both the benefits of cross-functional thinking and teams, and the benefits of functional excellence that we can get from functional organizations.  It isn’t clear that you can get both benefits from a stable organization – it seems to me that the organizations that get the benefits of both are constantly re-evaluating what’s required for the problems at hand. New initiatives and cross-department initiatives tend to get cross-functional teams. Personnel development and maintenance of existing business tends to be more functional – until it needs to be shaken up again.

Another “mixing” approach is to have functional organizations, that come together into cross-functional projects.  This is the best solution I’ve seen to the functional problem – and yet it still has issues.  Coming together for projects makes the project a bit more like a film production.  You bring the artists and directors and producers and film crew and stunt doubles together for one project, then they disband and recombine into future projects.  It makes it hard for someone to improve the way their team functions – because the team is constantly being reinvented.  I’m interested in what other firms have been able to make work – we’ve seen all stripes of approaches fail – the interesting thing to me is to try to identify the key insights that allow each approach to succeed!

  • It seems to me Scott, that we need a different kind of leader who values collaboration and multidisciplinary thinking. As I read your post, this article came to mind (http://ow.ly/bybpS). Gen. Russel Honoré (Ret.) talks about similar challenges for organizations, but from a leadership perspective.

    •  Fair point – not just new kind of leader but also different kinds of support for developing those leaders – and supporting them as they step into those roles…  great link, thanks for sharing!