Who designs organizations?

Organisation design success is dependent on the complex interactions of four broad leadership groups: internal formal and informal leaders, and, external formal leaders and external informal leaders. Each of these groups has at their disposal various sources of power and although formal leaders tend to have access to more of these than informal leaders the way the power is wielded is an important determinant of the outcome – as martial arts practitioners know soft as cotton can be as hard as steel.

Access to and use of power is one of several variables determining ability to lead. Other variables include style of attracting and holding on to followers, stability or instability of circumstances, personal motivation, and the organisation's political landscape. The efficacy of leaders changes as the context does and someone who cannot adjust their style of leadership or draw on a different source of power is opening the door for someone else to seize the leadership role.

Formal leaders – executives, sponsors, business unit heads – all have, by virtue of their position, three specific power sources: formal authority; control of scarce resources, and use of organisational structure, rules and regulations. They may have additional sources of power but it is these three that are usually associated with hierarchical position. How well they use their power or are able to use it depends on the context and on their own leadership style and behaviour.

Typically – and depending on the size of the organisation and the design project – an individual will sponsor a business plan for the design but the day-to-day operational leadership of it will be delegated to a steering group and then onwards to programme directors, project managers, team leaders and so on. These formal leaders can be organizational insiders or external consultants with vested authority.
Colin Powell made the point that 'organization charts and fancy titles count for next to nothing' Informal leaders emerge in organisations usually because they have a particular passion or belief and have characteristics which engage people in their cause. These informal leaders are found at any level in the hierarchy because what they spearhead is independent of hierarchy. Informal leaders muster support not only by their approach (for example using 'strategic alliance building') but also by their use of referent power (which derives from the belief that people have in them after seeing them in action) and their personal characteristics.
Using their available power, informal leaders can initiate new organisation design work by their actions or they can intervene in an already initiated project (sometimes with the intention of making or breaking it).
Collaborative working – where people feel good about their interactions and the results it produces – hard to achieve. Whatever the mix of formal and informal leaders in an organisation design project the barriers to good outcomes are the same: territorial game playing, poor decision making, the tendency to make assumptions, seeing things from only one perspective, and failing to learn. Removing these is an imperative.

Leading design projects takes guts and a great deal of awareness – of self and of others – to carry things through, keep on learning, admit fallibilities, and deal with consequences.

Wayne Hale of NASA in an e-mail to staff describes his world of leading space projects. Any organisation design leader will echo them.

"I have given the Go 28 times. Every time was the toughest thing I have ever done. And I have never ever been 100 percent certain, it has always been gray, never a sure thing. But the team needs to have confidence that the decision was good. It is almost a requirement to speak the words much bolder than you feel, like it is an easy call. Then you pray that you were right."