December’s organization design tool

Each month I am putting up one tool that I use in the course of my organization design work. December's is the 'Ten Principles of Good Organization Design'. It's presented in my book Organization Design: the Collaborative Approach where I note that there is a useful discussion around the principles in Gareth Morgan's book Images of Organization. And I mention specifically Chapter 3.

I've just re-read that chapter to see how I developed the tool as a result of reading it the first time round. (I think that was the order but maybe I developed the tool and then read the chapter – I don't remember).

Anyway – this chapter, and indeed the whole book, is a powerful and provocative read. I bought it when it first came out and I sitll think it is the best and most recommendable book on organization design that I've read to date. Chapter 3 is on organizations as organisms and he concludes the chapter by noting the strengths and limitations of this metaphor.

He argues that the strengths of it are:

  • It aids our understanding of the relationship between organizations and their environments i.e. they are open systems and "are best understood as ongoing processes rather than as a collection of parts"
  • It help managers think from a survival perspective rather than a goal perspective: if organizations managed by thinking of what they need to survive they will be more flexible and able to seek and make better use of resources than if they are managed on the basis of trying to reach specific operational goals
  • It emphasizes that there are always choices and options for survival and that the quality of the choices made count.
  • "It stresses the virtue of organic forms of organization in the process of innovation"
  • "Finally. The metaphor is making important contributions through a focus on 'ecology' and interorganizational relations"

However, viewing organizations through the metaphor of organisms has limitations and Morgan discusses three of these:

  • It leads us to think of organizations as tangible and concrete – much as we could prod an animal. In fact organizations are socially constructed phenomena with member choices that make them active agents in organization survival.
  • It leads us to think of harmony as a body survives when its systems are operating effectively. Morgan points out that this type of harmony is rarely evident in organizations – the are not "functionally unified"
  • It leads to the danger of becoming an ideology around which management and organization practices are shaped

So when using the tool bear in mind the limitations as well as the strengths of it.