When was the last time you set eyes on an interesting org chart, one that enlightened you or even one you could call well-designed? I’m going to guess not for a while, if at all. Having looked at dozens of examples over the past few weeks I’m feeling pretty uninspired. Mostly they are either flat and dull or an over-designed waste of space (literally):
This is on a whole page – the full 41 page pdf available here. Organograms are often a pain to create and the design everyone expects is generic and mainstream (coloured boxes displayed in rows with lines joining them). For a source of multiple examples I went to the UK government’s open data site and searched for ‘organogram’ in pdf format. 110 items is a pretty good search return and these are the first 3 that came up:
Although they all provide some useful information, they take up a lot of space in the process (low information density). When charting an organisation we seem constrained by the norm and the end result is consistently poor. The main reason I can see for them being so dull is the rigid pursuit of this expected design pattern. There are a few specialised org charting tools available but for the most part people tasked with producing them will still turn to Microsoft’s PowerPoint or Visio. These have the potential to create engaging graphics pretty simply and other information can be manually added easily. The charts above do include some pretty interesting data that was almost certainly calculated manually.
There are 3 key elements to an org chart:
- The information held on each ‘node’: an employee’s name, their role, division etc.
- The relationship between the nodes: solid lines linking parent to child or dotted lines showing other connections. Sometimes colour or shading as an indication of belonging
- Style and layout: style can be of the card (how the node is displayed). The layout of the nodes on the page can also be a powerful conveyer of information
Any information can be placed on the node. For an individual it could be their capabilities, performance, availability, experience, LinkedIn profile etc. It can be information calculated from those around them: the total cost of the team below them, average tenure in their peer group etc. (I hope to explore some of the concepts and value of data within trees over the coming months). The available space on a single slide of PowerPoint could be put to better use. Here’s a 14,000 employee organisations in a single slide. It is a metropolitan council – the big circle is the schools (all reporting to one person).
Here’s another kind of view which offers a visual representation of span of control and depth of reporting lines:
Just focussing on the node design can make for engaging org charts. I was having a conversation with Chris, OrgVue’s lead product genius. He had been telling me how we’ll be able to put anything on the card in OrgVue. I heard this and thought: “that’s great, when can we see everyone’s photos?” “Trivial” was his reply, “we can put people’s performance records, or data from any source on it and still be able to zoom in to the details and out to the org level view, while allowing the colour-by / size-by function”. This is pretty neat, but then he said “I was just having some fun” and showed me this:
The team were working on displaying just those cards which have been moved (OrgVue allows the movement of nodes for visually modelling a to-be organisation) as a post-it while all others remain as is. The coloured dots are also configurable and as Chris reiterated to me – you can do anything with them, put as many dots on, colour them based on any underlying data. With this I can see group sessions to help a group reach consensus on organisational design. Imagine running this on an interactive whiteboard and having a whole group of people modelling on the fly – no more flipcharts and broken markers. Just a set of stakeholders who all agree based on the evidence – that really would be something. You do not have to go far to see what a difference a bit of design can make.
Here’s a few ways to give your org charts a little more sparkle:
- Include insight on the card relevant to your audience. If your audience is exec level, what would they most like to know in context of the organisation? For each node display something relevant to its position. For instance calculate the number of direct reports or the total costs below them.
- Make the design engaging and contemporary: beware 1990s PowerPoint, 3D and Word Art – avoid the usual sins. Take clues from designs you like and aim for something simple (where the design does not detract from the information).
- Use visual clues and metaphor: size the node based on information (salary? tenure?). Using the Post-it® note theme with coloured dots conjures up informal consulting (not yet fixed in stone), whereas a business card or ID card layout (with photo) looks professional and a large photo with a soft font looks friendly. Think about what you want your chart to convey and design the card accordingly.
- Change the layout: for maximum impact, break away from the box layout. Experiment with an icicle view or hub and spoke. There is huge attention on data visualisation techniques right now with lots of resources scattered around the internet.
Here’s an example from 1943 that breaks the mould and from who else than the creative powerhouse of Walt Disney. It is no longer a pure org chart but really an indication of the workflow of a creative process. Part process flow diagram, part high-level org chart. 68 years later, at OrgVue we plan to make this kind of thinking and production effortless for everyone.