Design Q & A: The challenge of ‘the need’

The retrospective show at London's Barbican is a go-to if you're in the neighbourhood. It showcases Charles and Ray Eames who 'are among the most influential designers of the 20th century. Enthusiastic and tireless experimenters, this husband and wife duo moved fluidly between the fields of photography, film, architecture, exhibition-making, and furniture and product design.'

It's a reminder that organisation design practice is similarly about moving fluidly between fields of organisation structures, cultures, people, work, processes, technologies, data and so on, and meeting some kind of need in doing so.

In one room Design Q & A Charles answers succinctly a series of 29 questions in a 5-minute video. Both the questions and his answers are applicable to organisation design. (You can read the text here) Four of them stood out for me as I reflected on my work last week:

Q1: "What is your definition of 'Design,' Monsieur Eames?
A: "One could describe Design as a plan for arranging elements to accomplish a particular purpose."

Q2: "Does the creation of Design admit constraint?"
A: "Design depends largely on constraints."

Q3: "What constraints?"
A: "The sum of all constraints. Here is one of the few effective keys to the Design problem: the ability of the Designer to recognize as many of the constraints as possible; his willingness and enthusiasm for working within these constraints. Constraints of price, of size, of strength, of balance, of surface, of time, and so forth. Each problem has its own peculiar list."

Q4: "To whom does Design address itself: to the greatest number? to the specialists or the enlightened amateur? to a privileged social class?"
A: "Design addresses itself to the need."

It's the fourth question that is the most challenging for organisation designers: agreeing that the organisation design is about addressing 'the need' (Q4) that accomplishes the 'particular purpose' (Q1) within certain constraints (Q.2,3).

Here are three organisation design examples that illustrate the challenge of 'the need'.

  1. Leadership (not stated out loud) need: 'I think x is a good guy who deserves promotion. Let's restructure to give him/her a new division carved out from these three others.'

    For those in 'a privileged social class' (organisational 'leaders'?) 'the need' is often opaque, political and not always stated directly, as in this case to put someone into a specific job role created for that person and thus 'the purpose' becomes restructuring the organisation around that person. Is that a legitimate organisation design piece of work? How would you handle it?

  2. Current need v known future need: 'We need to solve the customer complaints problem really quickly. Let's open a new function and recruit 300 people to do that. We'll worry about what to do with them when we've got technology that their complaining about working properly.' Is that a legitimate organisation design piece of work? In what circumstances?
  3. Many stakeholders' needs: There are many stakeholders in the system each viewing issues and opportunities from their unique perspective e.g. 'We need an omni-channel strategy'
    1. to give a better customer experience/choice (Customer Satisfaction Director)
    2. to outperform our competition (Financial Director)
    3. to break down our internal silos that makes the different channels competitive which misses opportunities (Operations Director)
    4. to attract more customers (Marketing Director)

Each of the four needs could result in a different organisation design. How do you reconcile or prioritise them? Is one more legitimate than the other?

How do you identify 'the need' that will accomplish a particular purpose in your organisation design work given the constraints? Let me know.

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