Book review:Organisation Design: Redefining Complex Systems

At long last a 10 hour flight gave me the time to get out Nicolay Worren's book, Organisation Design: Redefining Complex Systems, and read it from cover to cover. He'd sent it to me a couple of months ago asking me to review it and on the mistaken assumption that I'd have the discipline to turn off my laptop and read a book I'd agreed. My technique to ensure this finally happened was to pack my laptop in my checked baggage, hoping it would arrive (which it did).

The book is well worth reading and, as I discovered, although it is a 'build' i.e. it would be better to read it from start to finish than to dip into it Nicolay has organized it so that the time constrained people can get good insights from the beginning and end of each chapter.

Each chapter opens with a brief bullet list overview giving background, challenges, the chapter's key question, a proposed approach to answering the question. And each ends with a conclusion (sometimes headed instead 'summary and discussion' or 'discussion and conclusion'), the framework he has presented during the chapter for answering the key question, some review questions, some research questions, notes, case study and the references.

Just looking at the key question at the start of each chapter is thought provoking. Chapter 3, for example sets out to answer the question "How can we manage to re-design processes in a manner that allows us to align the organization with the strategy, create coherent designs, while building trust among key stakeholders (including employees affected by the change)?" This is a question I am constantly seeking to answer in the work that I do so it was interesting to note the approach Nicolay took. He suggests a 9-step sequence of activities starting with 'Setting the Agenda', and one of the actions in this step is to facilitate a discussion with managers on the gap between current and potential performance. By looking at the summary at the end of the chapter you can get the nine steps but only by reading the chapter do you get the suggested activities and the full discussion.

There are activities in each chapter, several of which I am tempted to try out in my next design project. Chapter 7, for example, tackles configuring interdependencies which is something people have a hard time thinking through. Five types of interdependencies are discussed: activity, commitment, governance, resource, and social networks. There is a good exercise to go with the commitment interdependency and the discussion Worren has on governance and trust could be turned into another very valuable exercise. Indeed, the discussion is one I am having with a current client and this section gave me an idea on how configure an exercise in my next meeting with them.

Beyond the organization of the book, the thought provoking questions, and the number of exercises that could be used in day to day organization design work, a further strength of it, for me anyway, is the attitude of the author that what he is presenting is open to testing, feedback, and improvement. Unlike a 'seven steps to success' approach Worren is inviting people to delve deeper, question, check assumptions, and so on. And I enjoyed many of his almost side comments – clearly taken from experience – that people don't agree on the what the organization is there to do, they are unable to draw boundaries between their team and other in terms of work load/processes/outputs, and some don't know who they report to. His approach, predominantly via a structural i.e. organization chart lens, to taking out the complexity that contributes to this form of confusion is the essence of the book.

However, the approach will not suit every reader because the book is definitely 'technical', and focused on structures – that is the 'box relationships'. As it says on the back cover 'This book equips the reader with advanced tools and frameworks…'. In many respects it is not an easy read. There are a lot of acronyms and one improvement would be a list of these. His discussion of axiomatic theory took me a couple of goes to wrap my head around, here's an example of why (perhaps unfair as you don't have the full context but you should get the idea):

"Third, the approach encourages the creation of coherent designs if one ensures that the lower-lever FRs collectively satisfy the FR at the higher level. Finally by mapping the FRs against the DPs in a so-called design matrix (as illustrated in Table 1.2) one may evaluate the correspondence between FRs and DPs more systematically."

Once I understood functional requirements (FRs) I realized that the activities related to identifying these are useful and could stand in place of the workflow mapping that I do at this point – which I think get to much the same end, but that is open to challenge.

For a person new to organization design the academic concepts and approaches presented might be overwhelming, but for an organization theory researcher there are a number of great questions that would form the basis for a dissertation topic. (And his suggestion that Elliott Jaques' work on Requisite Organization is worth another look is one that is definitely worth exploring).

Another limitation of the book that came to mind as I was reading is that although there are many examples and case studies there are no government or non-profit examples to draw on. One of my current clients, a government, would love to be able to reduce the layers of hierarchy to five – as Worren almost suggests is optimal in most organizations – or at least a lesser number than the current 21, but legislation and various obstacles mean redesigns have to work around this. Neither are there any non-western culture organizations that I could identify. It would be good in a second edition of the book to have a wider range of cases and examples.

A further area that a second edition could pick up on is the social media and information and communication technology one. There are a couple of instances where Worren notes that software can help with organization design work, but there is no mention of Rob Cross's work on organization network mapping, or of MITs work on sociometric badges, for example. I couldn't find many recent (last five years) references and in this fast moving field the time lag between writing and now means things have moved on.

Two nitpicks niggled at me. The first to do with editing carefully: Chapter 7, for example, talks throughout of 'interdependencies' but is headed 'Configuring interfaces'. There are several missed typing and grammar errors, but I am particularly sensitive to this sort of thing as I frequently miss my own. The second is nothing to do with Nicolay Worren but the field of organization design. Looking at the lengthy list of references at the end of each chapter I noted that virtually none were women. Given the research that suggests that companies with a reasonable proportion of women on the board and at senior positions perform better than those that are largely male dominated I wondered whether organization design concepts and theories would evolve differently if more women were in the field?

These cavils aside, I got a lot from the book: thought provoking questions, ne activities to try out, confirmation of some of the ways I approach organization design, and a few new avenues for investigation. I certainly recommend the book to others.