A recent “Creating” column in the Saturday Wall Street Journal Review section contained a beneficial lesson on an age-old business issue: getting line and staff organizations working well in strong strategic alignment with one another.

And as often happens with the Creating column, the lesson came from an unlikely source: a college marching band.

arthur-bartnerThe profile focused on the director of the USC Trojan marching band for the past forty-two years, Arthur Bartner. Since starting at USC in 1970, Bartner’s strategy has been to build a strong connection between the USC football team (the line organization) and the USC marching band (a staff, or support, organization).  Through a variety of strategies, Bartner has attempted to create organizational, emotional, and performance connections between his marching band and the football team.

4 Lessons for Line and Staff Organizations Working Well

The Wall Street Journal article yielded four valuable lessons Arthur Bartner uses that any business with line and support organizations can also embrace to create better strategic alignment:

1. Structure the support organization similarly to the line organization

Create staff organization structures with natural links to the line organization, along with job titles and terminology in the staff organization to reflect how the line organization thinks and talks.

2. Ensure the support organization is in the same places as the line organization

Use joint meetings, frequent ongoing interactions, and strong reporting relationships to make sure the line and staff organizations are familiar with each other and clear on joint goals to support the entire organization.

3. Have the staff organization orient its support delivery toward how the line organization works

Line managers should have visible and meaningful involvement in shaping support organization strategies. Additionally, the staff organization needs to be working on the same objectives as the line organization. For the greatest strategic alignment, its activities should directly enhance what the line organization is doing.

4. Support organization leaders need a strong understanding of the line organization environment

Staff organization leaders need exposure to the line organization through job sharing, rotations, and/or project assignments. Ideally, at least some staff organization leaders should have come from the line organization earlier in their careers.

Strategic Alignment and Getting Line and Staff Organizations Working Well Can Be Elusive

Achieving strategic alignment between among line and staff organizations has the potential for incredible results, but it’s not necessarily easy to accomplish. Pursuing these four lessons from the USC marching band, however, can pave the way to making real progress . . . in less than forty-two years! - Mike Brown


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