Five rules of thumb for organization design

I've been working with a business unit on redesigning their space. What is harder to get across is the notion that space redesign impacts other elements of the organizational system. In looking for ideas on how to guide the leaders into thinking about their unit as a system I dug out these five rules of thumb from my book on organization design:

1 Design when there is a compelling reason

Without a compelling reason to design it will be very difficult to get people behind any initiative and engaged in it. Business jargon talks about 'the burning platform' needed to drive major change. Part of a decision to design rests on making a very strong, strategic, widely accepted business case for it – based on the operating context. If there is no business case for design or redesign it is not going to work.

2 Develop options to before deciding on design
Scenarios or simulations can help to develop options. Mapping the workflow and identifying the impact the context and circumstances have on it give clues on whether design is necessary or whether some other interventions will be effective. Storytelling is another powerful technique to develop thinking on whether a new design is really necessary: ask people to tell stories about the work itself, about the nature of the work how to do it better, and whether to do it at all.

Using a range of methods helps decide at a tactical level whether organisation design work makes sense or whether the issues can be addressed by other approaches (for example technical skills training).

3 Choose the right time to design
Design work is undertaken in a dynamic environment in which the organization, like a gyroscope, needs to be kept both stable and moving. Choosing the right time to intentionally design is a matter of judgment. However, for organisational change to be successful it is necessary to:

• establish a sense of urgency (the 'burning platform' previously mentioned)
• form what John Kotter calls a powerful 'guiding coalition': that is a group of people with enough power and influence to lead the organisation through the design
• create a picture of the redesigned organisation in vivid terms that people will recognise and want to be part of (or can decide not to be part of – in this case plan to help them exit gracefully).

4 Look for clues that things are out of alignment
Assuming that there are frequent and regular measures of business results look for clues that things are out of alignment. In Gore's case they already know that when unit size gets to more than 150 people issues arise, innovation is lost, and associates stop seeing the whole picture. Organisation blog sites are a good source of clues about organizational misalignment, as are the types of rumors or gossip flows that circulate as people talk with each other.

Lack of current alignment is a good signal for design work. On the other hand if things are aligned then there is usually no reason to initiate design work. (It is resource intensive and disruptive even when going well).

5 Stay alert to the future
That said, identifying that things are currently aligned is not a cause for complacency. The context is constantly shifting and this requires an alert, continuous, and well executed environmental scanning. Organisations must live with the possibility that they will have to do design work at any point, so should take steps to build a culture where change, innovation, and forward thinking are welcomed. Gore's current situation speaks to this point

But a $1.6 billion company can't run on hope. Gore's next big challenge is to keep up its double-digit growth rate even as it gets bigger. As Gore grows from nearly 7,000 employees to 14,000 and then 21,000, it must continue to invent ways to protect its people from the harsh outside elements, even as it lets their big and creative ideas breathe — and prosper. That means venturing into the hazards of the greater world, where Gore might find it difficult to safeguard its unusual [innovative] culture. It means teaming up with giants like GM, the quintessential hierarchical organisation. It means expanding overseas to tap new markets and new sources of talent.

Gore has been a successful business since 1958. Even so, would it be safe to bet that the company is consciously considering how it should be designed for continuing and future success?

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