Organisational ‘Archy’-tecture

We have referenced ‘enterprise architecturepreviously when describing the system ‘layers’ which make up a nonprofit’s ‘system of systems’. The whimsical title of this post seeks to broaden the lens to consider the relationship between organisational structure and functions (including products and services).

The term ‘architecture‘ shares linguistic roots with numerous terms used to describe systems of governance (or the lack thereof). Similarly, other governance terms like democracy, bureaucracy, and autocracy share linguistic roots. Some of these connections are illustrated in the charts below.

Form follows function

Form follows function‘ is one of the most often cited maxims in design, especially with regard to 20th-century architecture. The phrase was coined by Louis H. Sullivan, a US architect, in his 1896 essay “The Tall Office Building artistically considered”.

“It is the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic, of all things physical and metaphysical, of all things human and all things superhuman, of all true manifestations of the head, of the heart, of the soul, that the life is recognisable in its expression, that form ever follows function. This is the law.”

Reframed to apply to organisational design (and transformation), we could say that ‘purpose dictates structure’, or perhaps more accurately, “purpose should dictate structure”. The selection of the structural parts, therefore, and the way they interact and are sustained, should be both consonant with and supportive of your organisation’s purpose. Where this is sub-optimal, your organisational structure may not be ‘fit for purpose’.

Anyone who has been responsible for developing the functional specifications for a new office layout understands well that the nature of the organisation’s activities, and the requirements of the people, processes, and technology engaged in those activities, dictate how much space is required, and where each functional space needs to be positioned in relation to the other functions involved.

Using this dictum then, your organisational structure should also reflect the way work is organised and carried out (i.e. ‘good form will follow function’).

Function follows form (Conway’s Law)

Contradicting Sullivan’s maxim (tenet or adage), Mel Conway famously observed that software tended to resemble the structure of the team involved in engineering it. In its original form then, Conway’s Law stated:

“Any organisation that designs a system (defined broadly) will produce a design whose structure is a copy of the organisation’s communication structure”

Melvin E Conway 1967
See Wikipedia entry

Conway’s Law was reframed by Yourdon and Constantine, in their 1979 book on Structured Design, to apply more widely to any product or service designed by an organisation, as follows:

“The structure of any system designed by an organisation is isomorphic to the structure of the organization”.

(The term ‘Isomorphism’ is derived from the Ancient Greek isos “equal” and morphe “form “or “shape”.)

As nonprofit directors and managers, you may find it instructive to consider the extent to which your current organisational structures constrain or enable the achievement of your purposes and strategic goals. If you need to change your structure/s to achieve your vision, this may be beneficial rather than a hollow exercise (moving deck chairs).

Hierarchy Vs holarchy?

Traditional organisational structures were hierarchical, with each group of related functions arranged into silos (e.g. divisions, branches) headed by directors, within which business units and teams (sub-silos) were managed by line managers. In enterprise architectures of this type, the emphasis tended to be on the boxes in the org chart – and less attention was paid to the cross-functional interactions, and the number and types of ‘lines’ that connected the boxes in order to address more complex business processes.

In recent years, some analysts have tended to see all hierarchies as bad, equating them with oppressive and controlling systems that deny individuals their autonomy and agency. Ironically, some who argue for holarchical organisational structures instead are actually seeking a system of organisational governance that distributes power through a hierarchy of circles. While under this model, power is given to roles and circles rather than to people or positions, this remains a form of hierarchy.

In the end, the board remains accountable to regulators and stakeholders for good governance (including good management). Regardless of the structures employed, that responsibility cannot be abrogated.

Anarchy – the leadership vacuum

While ‘anarchy’ might be considered theoretically as an alternative to ‘hierarchy’ or ‘holarchy’, anarchic conditions can arise under any organisational model where leaders fail to lead.


Yourdon, Edward; Constantine, Larry L. (1979). Structured Design: Fundamentals of a Discipline of Computer Program and Systems Design (2nd ed.). Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall. ISBN 0138544719. OCLC 4503223.

See also:

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