Function and Form

A common putdown for a pretty thing that is not very useful is to say that it places “form over function,” meaning that the designer or builder put more effort into the way something looked than how it worked. It means that the person making the selection based their decision on how good it looked and not how well it worked.

I have found the comment to be both relevant and wrong, depending on the context in which it is made.

Relevant and wrong?

Look at the way your company is organized. There is a “big cheese” — the CEO. Arrayed around him are various executives heading the various functional departments. There is a VP of Finance, a VP of Marketing, a VP of Sales, a VP of Manufacturing, a VP of MIS, etc. Reporting to each of these executives are more functional departments focused on narrower areas, until the structure gets to where the real work is done. This is a functional organizational design in which the form follows the function.

Here is a rhetorical question: Does it function well?

Everyone in corporate life complains about the organizational silos, how people in the various departments only look at their own part of the company and not at the rest of the moving parts. In reality, the silos have bridges that interconnect their activities and address the moving parts. For things to work, these bridges have to exist. Built as needed, these informal bridges exist because middle managers have seen a need for interaction with the department in the other silo to get the job done. Corporate leadership seldom sees these needs. As time goes by, more (sometimes redundant) bridges appear, while other bridges fall due to a lack of relationship maintenance from the managers who built them in the first place, or the disappearance of the need that prompted the building of the bridge.

Take a step back and look at your organization, at how your functional department is interconnected with the other functional departments in your company. You will see that there is a formal, “official” chain of command. But you will also see informal connections.

Now ask yourself, “How important are those informal connections?” If Joe (or whoever the person is in the other department) left, would our work be affected? If the answer is “yes,” then the connection is important. The more you look, and the larger the organization is, the more of these informal connections you will find. And you may become concerned about how dependent the operation of your group is on these informal connections.

Here is an example that exists in any large organization. You have a software problem. Whom do you turn to? Do you call the IT Help Desk? Do you call another team member in your department? Or do you call an IT guy you know who will answer the phone and can fix the problem in a flash? The path you will select is the path of least resistance, or the fastest fix. If that call is to the IT guy you know, then the formal bridges are dysfunctional.

And what is your reaction when that IT guy who has always taken your calls tells you that this time you have to call the help desk before he can help you, or he gets in trouble? Do you call the help desk? Do you get mad? Or do you start begging?

Shiny Object Fixation

Another take on the form and function argument is what I sometimes call the "shiny object syndrome." Shiny object syndrome occurs with software and automation projects, when a senior manager or officer — who is not involved and does not really understand the function of the software or automation in question — is supposed to help make the decision. It looks good. There are attractive features. The sales team is able to communicate an attractive message. The user interface looks good and the reports look good. The paint finish is glossy, the colors are bright, and it “looks” better than the other options. The high quality exterior leads one to assume the product offers superior functionality when there is actually no basis for that judgment.

Senior managers are not the only people who fall victim to shiny object syndrome. Lower managers and worker bees too can fixate on the shiny sbject and choose form over function. The worst cases happen when, without a serious workout of the features, without the due diligence of hard testing, and without an understanding of the problems, someone makes the final decision to select the solution.

Shiny object syndrome also affects the design of an organization. Some departments are more “exciting” (Advertising, Sales, Marketing) than others (Accounting). Sometimes good accounting practices get left out of the process of an Advertising or Marketing project because the need is not seen by the Advertising or Marketing leaders, or the corporate leaders. That is, until there is a budget — then, “Ugh.”

So, making a decision based just on function is not right, and making the call based on just form is just as bad. You have to balance form and function. Getting the balance right is the tricky part, but if it is done right it will deliver a powerful effect.

A well made tool will fit the hand well and fit the job better than any other tool. The same goes with the design of an organization, from the smallest departments to the corporation. A well designed organization reflects the objective of the job. A superior organizational design not only defines the parts, but defines how the parts are to work together, and provides standards of performance.

Is your company just focused on the function? How much thought has gone into the form? And how much are you doing to help make sure the two are blended together in what you do?

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