Organization Design Practitioner Themes

Over the past year I've been facilitating organization design workshops in various countries across the world: UK, Egypt, China, Australia, Romania, Austria, Belgium, Hungary, Sudan, US. These have been connected to different types of projects: developing HR Strategy, introducing organization design methodologies, training HR practitioners in the different role they play as a consultant, changing an organization's culture, and moving staff and operations from one location to another. I've interacted with several hundred people during the course of this work and it has all been a lot of fun.

Towards the end of 2013 someone asked me a question: 'What are the themes that are common to HR practitioners/OD consultants across cultures and organization design projects?' I see six themes across all the countries and cultures where I've been working:

Recognizing that organization design skills are different from HR skills. Most of the people I work with who come on programs to learn how to do organization design work come from an HR background. They are fully aware that they will need new or different skills to do organization design work. Below two people give their reason for wanting to develop specific organization design skills:

'My organization has grown significantly over the last few years and I want to think more effectively about its design, at global, national and functional levels. Having done a lot of work around job design, I also wanted to think about how this relates to organization design.' (Head of Organization Development)

'I have a knowledge and awareness of organization design built through operational implementation. I would like to learn about best practice and also have a robust methodology that I can use as a framework.' (HR Business Partner)

The UK's CIPD publishes an HR Profession Map which can be downloaded free from their website which provides an overview of organization design competences at four different levels related to 'Activities: what you need to do', 'Knowledge: what you need to know' and the behaviors you need to demonstrate in doing the work.

Understanding the relationship of the consultant to the client: As stated, the role of an organization design consultant is very different from the role of an HR practitioner. The client needs to know exactly what role the consultant will take – are they a 'pair of hands', an expert advisor, a process consultant, or perhaps something else? And the HR person has to be clear that being a consultant is not the same as being an HR practitioner. For the most part the role of a consultant in organization design work is as a process consultant. The respective roles of each party during an organization design project are agreed in an initial 'contracting discussion'. HR people are often not comfortable having these initial contracting discussions with the client on the roles each will play in an organization design project. But Peter Block's book, 'Flawless Consulting' tells you how to conduct them. There is also a useful SlideShare that summarizes the contracting discussion. What isn't specifically mentioned in the HR Profession Map, mentioned above, are the consulting activities, knowledge and behaviors needed, but the Institute of Consulting has a management consultancy competence framework (and a business advisor one).

Having the level of business knowledge needed to be credible. I've noted time and again that HR people seem shocked (and sometimes scared) that they have to have the language of the business and real insight into how it operates to have a sensible conversation with their clients. I wrote a blog piece about the importance of this attribute known as Business Savvy Here's a summarized extract from that blog:

Business savvy is about having a deep and comprehensive understanding of the organization. For example it is knowing:

  • Where the funding or the finances comes into the organization.
  • Who the people are who bring in the money and who the people are who support those who bring in the money.
  • What the relationship is between what the employees do and the value that achieves the purpose of the organization.
  • How the organization really works in terms of its processes, its procedures and its systems.
  • The human dynamics – understanding the organizational politics, who is really influential and who is not, who are the noise makers but not necessarily the powerbrokers.
  • What's going on outside the organization, what's the context within which the organization sits.
  • About the customers and understanding their wants and needs.
  • The strengths and preoccupations of the competition.
  • How products and services are developing in the organization's field.
  • The people who are the beneficiaries of the organization and its work.

Knowing when to handover to the client and how to disengage from the assignment. There are question marks in people's minds on the whole point of departure from the project. It's rather difficult if the HR Business Partner is also the OD consultant because the 'walk away' is less clear cut. Being clear about the boundaries of the piece of work and the time to withdraw is essential if the internal consultant is to be able to manage the many conflicting priorities they usually have. Disengaging is much easier and clearer when the contracting process referred to earlier is effective: if the consultant's role and the client's expectations about the outcomes for the piece of work have been clarified the ending and handover should feel both appropriate and timely.

The ideal is that during the course of the project skills such as analysis, diagnosis, synthesis, communication skills, various strategic, managerial and tactical skills, ability to make quicker decisions and to take action have been transferred from consultant to client. At the point of disengagement/handover the client should be left feeling capable of continuing with new design implementation or embedding and not be feeling abandoned by the consultant. Additionally next time when facing similar problems the client should feel capable of handling it without the day to day involvement of a consultant. See an article Evaluating Consulting Projects which asks questions that could form part of the handover principles in the initial contracting discussion.

Evaluating the project at project close out and later in the lifecycle of it (after the consultant has disengaged). Evaluations are an important component by which organizations and consultants learn and develop knowledge. Roffey Park produced a good report on this 'Best Practices in OD Evaluation' (Disclosure – I was interviewed for it) which is worth reading. However, in organization design work there is often little appetite to evaluate the success of the redesign. Clients are reluctant to invite the consultant back 6 months or a year later to see whether the new design is achieving the intended outcomes. Nevertheless evaluation is a sensible thing to do and the report outlines several reasons why:

  • It focuses the project scope and the design work in the context of the business strategy, because it forces answering questions like 'why are we doing this?' 'How will we achieve the return on investment in doing it?' and so on.
  • It defines success in both qualitative and quantitative terms, and ties it closely to achieving business objectives in best cases using measures that feed into the overall organization performance measures
  • It puts the design work in a timeframe and helps the client see what results might be quick wins and what results will take longer to achieve and measure
  • It places accountability for success in the hands of the client/sponsor – which usually means a close eye is paid to progress and quick decisions are made if called for.
  • It fosters sharing of learning on successes and failures in organization design work – a neglected activity where evaluation is lacking.
  • It enables issues to be identified and action taken as needed.

The report rightly points out that sound evaluation is not necessarily easy, but gives some useful ideas on how to approach it as does the article mentioned above 'Evaluating Consulting Projects'.

Encouraging the client to spend time thinking about options and possibilities rather than leaping into a solution. If clients have a problem that needs fixing it is understandable that they will want to get on and deal with it. The issue here is that clients may be not be clear of the value of stopping to think (it saves mistakes, money, time further along in the project), and they may not be clear that the consultant is there to help with the 'think then act' process. Challenging clients can be difficult in some cultures and organizations but it is a skill that consultants need to spend time developing. Framing an initial discussion around the risks of not spending a bit of time looking at the bigger picture before focusing is an approach I have found works. A slightly different approach is to introduce a line manager education and knowledge building program about organization design and development, emphasizing the need to examine the context, consider options, and be ready to change course if the situation changes. Currently organization design theory and practice does not appear in most standard MBA or management development programs which contributes to the lack of manager skill in doing organization design work.

Additionally not many managers are skilled in reflective practice – a useful article on this topic Reflecting on Reflective Practices by Linda Finlay also has an appendix with cue questions to trigger reflection.

So there are the six themes that I have found across the projects and development activity I have worked on this year. How many of these themes ring true to you in the organizational design work you are doing? Let me know.

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