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Org Chart Confusion and the American Revolution

Org Chart Confusion and the American Revolution

Org Chart Confusion and the American Revolution

History can teach us a lot; this post looks at one of the business lessons we can take from the American Revolution. Best wishes for a happy Independence Day to my fellow Americans. – Melissa

Org Chart Confusion and the American RevolutionThe American colonists changed the course of history when they rebelled against the British Empire.

But why did they rebel?

When we talk about the road to revolution, we typically focus on events like the Boston Massacre and the Boston Tea Party and their role in the American colonists’ mounting frustrations. But these events were only part of the story of Parliament’s attempts to reassert control over the American colonies via passing and enforcing legislation, particularly tax laws. However, governments pass unpopular laws all the time without literal wars breaking out. What was it that inspired rebellion in the generally law abiding American colonists?

One way to answer that question is to look at the American colonists’ beliefs regarding themselves, the British Empire, and their rights as Englishmen. It wasn’t the substance of the laws (entirely) that upset the colonists. It was the fact that Parliament was passing laws for the colonies, a power that the American colonists believed that the England-based Parliament in Westminster did not hold.

Why did the American colonists feel that Parliament did not have legislative authority over them?

The short answer is that the British Empire failed to create and use an organizational chart, or org chart,* to identify who reported to whom. This resulted in a situation where the British government in Westminster and the residents of the American colonies developed their own ideas over what they hypothetical Empire Organizational Chart looked like.The 18th Century British Empire's Competing Org Charts


Westminster believed that Parliament had legislative authority over the entire empire, under the authority of their chief executive, the king. The American colonists came to believe that their individual legislatures were largely independent of Parliament. They believed that the existence of colonial legislatures curtailed Parliament’s authority over those colonies that had their own legislatures.

This situation leads to the following questions:

  • How did the competing org charts develop?
  • What can modern business leaders learn from this?

How did the competing org charts develop?

When the American colonies were formed, they soon developed their own legislatures to handle local matters. The existence of local colonial legislatures was particularly important when you consider the amount of time that it took to cross the Atlantic Ocean in the colonial era. The general policy of salutary neglect resulted in the rise of the (apparent) authority and importance of the colonial legislatures. The policy allowed the colonies to handle their own affairs and generally ignore laws passed by Parliament. This situation lasted for most of the American colonial period from 1607 to 1763, providing generations of time for the colonists to determine that this was the way things were meant to be. Meanwhile, if Westminster wasn’t entirely happy about the situation, it wasn’t willing to put in the effort and expense required to change it.

What can modern business leaders learn from this?

The first thing that a modern business can learn from the 18th Century British Empire’s attempts to govern the American colonies is to make certain that your business leadership creates an organizational chart that accurately reflects how you intend to run your business. Leaders need to decide how much authority they are willing to delegate while also considering that delegation’s potential consequences.

The next step is to ensure that all the departments on the org chart are familiar with the org chart. This includes understanding their position on it and how much authority they have. When individuals or groups are provided with conflicting or incomplete information on the scope of their authority or their role in the larger organization confusion and conflicts are natural results.

Finally, leaders need to make certain that the org chart is being followed. If people or departments are allowed to ignore the org chart, your business has a problem. But, to take a lesson from the Colonial Era, business leaders should handle this situation carefully on a case-by-case basis. They should look to the reasons for the departures from the official org chart and consider the potential ramifications of their actions to correct the situation. In some cases, the solution may be that the org chart needs to be adjusted to fit reality. In other cases, the solution may be that the org chart needs to be enforced strictly and immediately in spite of potential consequences of the sudden shift. Just recognize that if the change is too dramatic, you may have a rebellion on your hands.

It is impossible to say what would have happened if the British Empire had properly maintained and used an organizational chart instead of pursuing its policy of salutary neglect. However, businesses can still learn from the outcome. Three key lessons they can learn from the events leading up to the American Revolution are:

  • Have an org chart that accurately reflects leadership’s intentions and plans for the future.
  • Make certain that leadership shares it’s org chart with all of the involved parties and then enforces it.
  • Consider the reasons for departures from the org chart and decide how to correct them, while considering the potential consequences.

Parliament’s decision to reassert control over the American colonies upended expectations created over approximately 150 years of salutary neglect. Parliament’s failure to reconize the colonial point of view before enacting legislation resulted in a situation where attempts to reassert control were met with resistance, hostility, and an eventual complete separation. The modern business owner should consider this lesson and remember it when building his or her own empire.


What do you think? Could an org chart have changed the course of history?

* The first business organizational chart was probably created in the middle of the 19th Century. So having a modern organizational chart would be a stretch, but a clear hierarchy should have been possible. See Organizational chart – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, (accessed June 30, 2016), for a brief summary of the history of org charts.


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