The definitive guide to modern organisational charts

How a nice upgrade to the humble org chart can bring more clarity, accountability, and responsibility to modern teams.

What's in this guide?

In short, answers to all of the big questions about org charts. You will learn:

  • Why spend time making an org chart?
  • When should you create an org chart?
  • What should a modern org chart look like?
  • Who should create and maintain an org chart?
  • How do you get started with an org chart?
  • Where do I go from here?

Ready to dive in? Let's go!

Why spend time making an organisational chart?

Let’s face it, you’re busy, and if you’re going to spend time making a pretty diagram then there should be good reasons. And there are. So let’s break it down.

Organisational charts increase cohesion and alignment

As an initiative grows and more people join, not everyone will work with (or even personally know) everyone else. As they work hard on their part of the whole, it’s easy to lose sight of the bigger picture of how it all fits together; how their contribution is part of something bigger; and how everyone is ultimately working towards a common cause.

Once everyone has access to a map of how it all fits together, it all starts to make more sense. It’s motivating to know how one’s efforts connect with everyone else’s and how together they’re greater than the sum of the parts. 

Organisational charts increase accountability and responsibility

The simple act of making it clear and visual who’s ultimately responsible for what can create a marked difference in how well people actually do take responsibility. Every successful team has members who truly take responsibility for what they have signed up to do, and there’s accountability to check in with whether commitments were honoured. This isn’t about creating a blame culture, but about noticing if progress is really being made, and even more importantly, about learning.

When your name is next to something, it’s there for everyone (most importantly, YOU) to see so you know what’s expected of you and you’re more likely to do it. Or if it’s not possible or you just don’t have the intrinsic motivation for it, it’s a visual reminder to do something about it: pass it to someone better suited, or change the responsibility to something that will actually work for you.

Organisational charts reduce unnecessary duplication of effort

This one is especially true in modern teams that encourage autonomy, initiative-taking and innovation. While they enjoy the benefits of moving faster without centralised control slowing everything down (see the next point below!) the risk is that you accidentally have different teams working on essentially the same thing without knowing about each other.

It’s important to note that some degree of duplication of effort is not always a bad thing - we can learn from living systems that duplication can create resilience, not only waste. But if you don’t even know if you’re duplicating effort unnecessarily that can be the real problem. So having a clear, searchable and explorable org chart can create greater awareness for everyone of what else is happening so you can spend your valuable time and resources wisely.

Organisational charts reduce bureaucracy

There’s nothing like seeing a bureaucratic structure with too many layers of management hierarchy laid out visually to make people wake up and ask “Do we really need all of that? No wonder we spend spend so much time in approval processes! Arrrgh!”

A true picture of how everything currently works starts a very valuable conversation about how things could be made to flow better.

Organisational charts create understanding with stakeholders

Most initiatives have a website and social media presence where they present themselves to the world, yet other than perhaps a simple “Team” page listing the people involved, it’s hard for others to see the inner workings. That might be fine for a company who wants to be shrouded in secrecy, yet for most others, creating more transparency leads to more trust with stakeholders. If a version of the org chart is made public - preferably in an engaging way - stakeholders can see not only who is there and what their abstract job titles are, they can see more specifically what those people actually do. This can lead to valuable serrendipities with new connections being made from outside the team to the right people within it, and more understanding of just how much effort is being put into make the initiative work, for the benefit of those stakeholders.

Organisational charts speed up onboarding of new people

In one small study by a team using the Maptio organisation chart tool, every single member of cohort of new recruits to the organisation said they agreed or strongly agreed that being able to browse and explore the organisation visually helped them understand their place in the larger whole and contribute more quickly. If your team is growing, this benefit alone pays for the investment you make in creating and maintaining the org chart many times over.

Organisational charts increase productivity and flow

Keeping teams healthy, productive and on-track is a continuous exercise. Yes, we need productivity, but in a healthy, sustainable way, and allowing people to find their natural flow and play to their strengths and passions. Modern teams evolve as they learn and the environment they operate in also shifts around them.

So a good organisational chart isn’t a thing that’s created as a one-off exercise, but it evolves as you learn and grow and you can refer to it regularly, for example at quarterly or annual events where you zoom out from all of the busy work-in-progress and take stock of how it fits together, and what needs to change to build on what’s working and tackle any tensions that are hampering progress. As you make changes and evolve, the org chart is updated to reflect the new reality so everyone stays clear.

All of these benefits ultimately mean more flowing progress towards realising the vision of your initiative. And that’s the thing that matters most.

Self-assessment: What matters most to me?

Knowing why you’re creating an organisational chart will help you approach it in the right way and make sure you get the benefits you need. And if these benefits are not important to you then save yourself the time and don’t bother with it for now,

The nice thing is that even if you focus on one or more of these benefits, you’ll like get some impact in some of the others without any extra work. To know that the investment in time and effort is worth it, make sure you have at least one “Very important” OR that you’ve ticked “Somewhat important” to at least half of the benefits.

When should you create an organisational chart?

Alright, so if you’ve for this far, I’m guessing that creating an organisational chart is going to be valuable for you, so when should you get started on it?

As soon as you have two or more people working on a reasonably substantial initiative together, having an organisational chart can help, but when you’re very small, you want to keep it super simple. As much as we love org charts, you’ve got other things to do! Your needs will be very different if you’re dozens, hundreds or even thousands of people.

Getting started with the practice of mapping your organisation early on in a simple way means you’re in the habit before complexity gets the better of you and you’re madly scrambling to get it all mapped out later which could be costly.

There are several factors to consider:

  • How big is the team and how fast might it grow?
  • How complex and interconnected is the work?
  • How quickly is the way you’re organised evolving?

Reflecting on these questions, plus your answers to the self-assessment in the previous section, will help you decide if now’s the time to get started or whether you can live without an organisational chart for now and perhaps come back to it another time. when the need is more pressing.

What should a modern org chart look like?

Google image search results for alternative org charts

Now we’re getting to the really fun part: Pretty pictures!

Google image search has a whole bunch of ideas from the conservative to the downright wacky, but seriously, there’s no single right or wrong way to do it.

At the most functional level you just need to make sure your organizational chart is both an accurate representation of how everything fits together, and, that it’s clear and easy to understand.

But here’s a very important tip for you: As well as being functional, the organizational chart should invoke the right feeling in those who refer to it - one that represents your values and the culture you are trying to nurture. Why? Because the chart is a reflection of how an entire initiative fits together, so how people perceive the chart when they’re getting to know the organisation will affect how they perceive the organisation itself. Ideally, the chart and the culture will reinforce each other.

I’d make a bet that you’re reading this guide because you care about developing a modern organisation that isn’t only about making money, but realising a worthwhile vision to create the kind of world you want to see. And in your teams you want dynamism, creativity, autonomy and the scope for things to change and evolve over time. You want all of that as well as (not instead of) healthy helpings of good old responsibility to keep you on track.

If this sounds like you then let’s cut through all of the many possibilities and start with what is, in our (only slightly) humble opinion, the new starting point for modern organisational charts.

There are three main characteristics you can experiment with as you explore what will work best for you:

  • Use a pattern of nested circles as the main visual.
  • Place people in multiple places on the chart if they contribute in more than one place.
  • Break roles down into more specific things and show who is responsible for what.

Let’s look at each of these in more detail.

Use a pattern of nested circles as the main visual

An organisational chart represented as a pattern of nested circles

Why circles? Because a circle is a timeless human symbol. It does a great job of representing wholeness: The outer circle represents the fullness of the whole vision that you’re working towards realising, and everything else is within that. The deeper levels of circles nested within it represent the ever more specific initiatives, teams or areas of responsibility (however you choose to define them) that contribute to the vision.

Circles are also a powerful metaphor at the team level. A group of people sitting in a circle see themselves at a fundamental human level as having equal worth, regardless of any particular work roles they might have taken on. Yet this sense of equality which is so important in modern teams is also balanced by the hierarchy represented by the nesting of those circles. A healthy, modern hierarchy is about showing the natural deconstruction of the whole, and it’s ultimately a way to share power appropriately.

Place people in multiple places on the chart if they contribute in more than one place

The circles on the chart represent the things people are working on together that contribute to the vision, so we need to add the lovely human beings who are doing those things to the chart.

It can be powerful to recognise and show visually that in many cases, people contribute to more than one area. A good organisational chart will allow you to place individuals in all of the circles where they participate whether that be in a more leading role or a supporting one.

As you do this, a beautiful insight can emerge: You might notice that at the same time as the clear hierarchy of circles, there is also a network of people working together in different ways in different contexts - a creative web of co-workers.

This coexistence of healthy hierarchy and decentralisation is a key to modern ways of organising and working that keep everyone aligned to one overall vision whilst also being resilient and embracing the power of bottom-up thinking. Some org chart tools like Maptio allow you to view this network as well as the hierarchy of circles.

Break roles down into more specific things and show who is responsible for what

Building on the last point, we also recommend breaking the typical big monolithic job descriptions down into more specific roles that are easier to define. On your organisational chart you can add these more specific roles to people within the circles where they contribute. For example, someone might have the role of “Software tester” within a “Developing the technology” circle and also a role of “Photographer” with an “Event. Humans have diverse talents and interests and often defy fitting into a neat box. Make the most of this and allow people to contribute wherever they are naturally suited.

Hopefully you can see now that working on an organisational chart is so much more than just creating a diagram - it gives you hints as to how you can better organise to get the most out of everyone and increase your progress towards your vision.

Who should create and maintain an org chart?

All good org charts are championed ultimately by one person. In smaller initiatives it’s often a founder, and in others it’s often someone who plays a key role already in thinking about how the whole initiative fits together and wants to help things run as smoothly as possible.

Hot tip: Rather than deciding who the org chart champion is, it’s more powerful to follow the natural energy of the person who actually takes the initiative to start making it happen and acknowledge that it’s naturally theirs to do. That doesn’t mean they have to do all of the work alone, but their natural sense of responsibility for it will keep the effort alive.

In some cases, one individual with good knowledge of most of what most people do can create the map alone. Then they can share it with others for feedback on accuracy and get help to integrate the use of the chart into their regular rhythms of work. In larger initiatives it can be useful to recruit representatives from more specific areas of the organisation to help map out the various deeper parts.

A wonderful moment comes when you have a good draft of the chart to share with colleagues, Whether it’s on a team Zoom call or projected onto the screen at a team gathering, you’ll see how people naturally lean in to start exploring it, see where they fit, and often marvel at the new perspective on how all of the little things come together to move in one overall direction.

Your org chart is your friend

A modern organisational chart is not just another document that someone has to spend time maintaining. Remember all of those potential benefits in the first section of this guide? Each of them are realised and grown through ongoing processes, not by the one-off creation of an org chart (however fancy it looks).

Think of your organisational chart as a useful live, ever-evolving reference that gives you an vital input into various ongoing practices. Here are three examples:

Decision-making: When you’re making larger decisions that might affect a number of people or different part of the initiative, referring to the map can give you clues as to where that decision is really being made, and who should be involved the the decision. You can make wiser decisions by consulting the right people and getting their help to refine the decision.

Ongoing alignment: Many modern teams embrace faster-moving, agile ways of working. They move ahead with autonomy and steer as they go rather than following a rigid plan (that probably wouldn’t have worked out in practice anyway). There are huge benefits to this way of working, yet it’s still essential to regularly come up for air and check that what a team or individual is doing is still properly aligned with the bigger picture. If you draw your chart with this in mind (stand by for more tips on that coming up) then teams can both check the chart to steer their alignment with it, and update their own parts of the chart so everyone else has more visibility of their work.

Job-crafting: Colleagues can refer to the organizational chart to spot opportunities to do more of what they love and increase their contribution whilst also figuring out ways to let go of parts of their role they love a little less (we all have them), and let someone better suited take it over. As the definitive guide to the various parts of an initiative and what everyone’s roles are, the organisational chart provides a map where everyone can find the places they can best apply their talents and passions.

How do you get started with an organisational chart?

Here’s a big tip to help you get going: It’s easier and more powerful to start by adopting an explorer’s mindset rather than a designer’s mindset. This means that at first you’re not trying to make decisions about how things should be structured, but simply exploring and mapping out what’s already there. As you progress with this you might well spot areas where improvements could be made, but for now, just keep a note of them to come back to later. What you want is a map of the terrain as things stand right now, that you can then try to improve later. Modern organisational design is about continuous evolutionary development, not big monolithic changes from one structure that isn’t working to a new one (that’ll probably turn out to be flawed too).

With this in mind, the best way to get started is to not over-think it and get stuck staring at a blank sheet of paper (we’ve all been there), and instead just… start. Begin by sketching out something real even if it’s not accurate or complete, then add to it refine it further as you go along. See if you can make a start with a super simple chart a bit like this:

A simple starting point for an org chart in nested circles

It’s best to begin by drawing the big outer circle of the chart. Do it on paper or a whiteboard if you like, or use a digital tool like Maptio. You could say that this outer circle represents the whole organisation, but it’s even more impactful to see this outer circle as representing the overall purpose or vision of the entire endeavour because that’s the thing that everything else must really fit within (if something isn’t working towards that vision then it probably shouldn’t be there, or perhaps needs some work to get it better aligned). Label the circle with a short description of the vision in just a few words and then show who’s directly involved in holding the vision - perhaps a group of co-founders, leaders, or ‘vision stewards’. You can put their initials close to the edge of the circle. If you’re not sure what the vision is then just make your best guess and note down an action to get it clear later. Once you’ve created an outer circle, congratulations, you have begun!

Then you can start building out your organisational chart with some sub-circles within the outer one to represent the more specific teams, areas of responsibility or initiatives that contribute to the vision. Exactly how you break things down is up to you and don’t be shy about trying it a couple of different ways to see what makes most sense and will be most useful. A great way to try this at first is to ask the question “What main things are happening to realise the vision?” Then label the circles with the answers to that question - it makes the map very intuitive to read.

Where do I go from here?

We hope this guide has given you some pointers about how to approach your organisational chart project and you’re ready to give it a go.

For more help, there’s a free short video course from Maptio (about 30 minutes in total in 2-4 minute chunks) with no registration required. It will walk you through the mapping process and help you set things up in Maptio if you want to do it digitally although the advice is just as valid for doing it on paper or a whiteboard.

For those who prefer reading to watching, you can check out the free Creative Field Mapping website which explains the same approach step-by-step.

You can sign up for a free 30-day trial of Maptio, and know that at the end of your trial you’ll be happy to discover that Maptio has no fixed pricing - each customer self-sets the amount that’s right for them so it’s accessible to every purpose-driven initiative on the planet.

And that’s it from us. Good luck with your continued adventure into making org charts great again!

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