Informal design

The room I was working in for four days last week had two notices that caused merriment to the organization design groups I was working with. One notice pinned to the smartboard said 'Do not write on this board', and the other said 'no hot drinks to be brought into the room'. There were a number of other notices in the public areas of the office all peremptory in tone, mostly beginning 'no .. ' or 'do not …" . The no hot drinks one led to discussion, speculation and conspiracy – we all wanted to bring coffee into the room. Why were cold drinks ok and not hot? Would a hot drink allowed to stand and go cold still count as a hot drink? Were people checking the waste bins to see if there were hot drink cups in it? What was the penalty for breaking the 'rule'? Why was it instituted in the first place? Would people whistle-blow if a colleague brought a hot drink into the room? Etc. (The no writing on the smartboard was fine because we didn't need a board to write on, although it was still a perplexing notice).

The time spent on the no hot drinks notice may seem like a distraction from the task in hand but it served as a powerful symbol of the type of organizational cultural stuff that grows up and no-one knows why, or how to make sense of it. Just in this small illustration people could see the range of questions and then ingenious work-arounds that people came up with in order to do something they wanted to do and couldn't see the rationale for not doing.

This is the type of thing that isn't typically tackled in organization design projects but it should be. The idea of tackling the informal with the formal is essential – which is why it was good to see a new model illustrating this in an article Organizing for Advantage that came out a couple of weeks ago. The authors discuss 'How to design a mix of formal and informal factors to advance your company's strategy.' This came as a heady relief to the organization designers I was working with who were totally frustrated by being handed an organization chart by managers and told to 'make it like this'.

I experienced a different type of informal organization design challenge earlier in the week working with a multi-national team. It's always annoying to me when stereotypical national characteristics seem to emerge because I think stereotyping misses the richness of individuals and of a culture, but they clearly emanate from something – why is the 'typical' English person so much the character ably described by Bill Bryson in Notes from a Small Island?

A recent HBR article How Culture Shapes the Office drawn from Steelcase research using Hofstede's cultural dimensions seems to suggest (again) that there are national differences in the way people view the world. As a sidenote my book Corporate Culture: Getting it Right has a chapter on whether culture can be measured by tools such as the Hofstede one. I am not convinced that they can be more than a general indicator. However, putting that view slightly to one side it seemed that in the team I was working with their differences lay not only in the national lenses but also in the professional/expert lenses through which team members were – a little one-dimensionally – viewing the new organization design i.e. as the organization chart.

Tasked with a target of simultaneously maintaining, streamlining and expanding services (a phrase I came across in a Soundcloud job advert but which admirably describes the current challenges of most organization design work) the team was finding it hard going – which was how I got involved in helping them find a way forward. So our first task was to draw back from assumptions and preconceptions, and establish some common ground around the principles of achieving the target. The second task was to move thinking away from the organization chart (which, as I said, they equated the design) towards a more wide ranging thought that an organization design is the outcome of complex interactions between a range of formal (explicit) and informal (implicit) elements. This time we worked with the Nadler and Tushman congruence model (newer version) (also see my tool of the month June 2013).

By the end of the day we had established some principles for proceeding which they all (6 different nationalities and professions) appeared willing to adopt and make decisions against. It was lovely to hear the team leader express surprise that what had previously seemed impossibly difficult and riddled with conflict – perhaps because the task was being pursued from a structure/headcount/quantitative approach – now seemed do-able in an amicable way – because this time around the task was approached from a qualitative, cultural informal angle.

So my week's work served to reinforce my notion that organization design must integrate the formal and informal aspects of organizational life – a thought that I pick up in more detail in my forthcoming book – Organization Design: Engaging with Change, coming out towards the end of this year.

What's your view of the need to integrate the formal and informal components of organization into a design project? Let me know.