Being on the edge of inside

I set myself a hard task when I sent off my paragraph to the European Organisation Design Forum saying what I would talk about at the annual conference coming up this week.

Naomi will discuss with us the hard but rewarding day-to-day work of designing an organisation capable of moving from a risk-averse, hierarchical, very traditional paper-based 'analogue' organisation to a 'digital' one without any service loss or disruption. She will offer insights into what makes her heart sing whilst at work, balanced by the occasional journey home in despair. Along the way she will pose some fundamental questions for reflection on organisation design theory and practice.

To get myself thinking on it before Friday arrives and I stand in front of an audience I decided interview myself. As follows:

Q What makes your day to day work hard?

The hardest part is trying to get a grip on the context. If you've ever seen House of Cards or Yes Minister or Yes Prime Minister or The thick of it you'll get the idea. They're don't seem to me to be satires. They feel like documentaries. For a newcomer to the British Civil Service, as I am, it's the biggest challenge and one that many experience.

The whole environment and context is hard. The legacy of stuff, the antiquated technology, the risk averseness, and the sheer 'buggeration factor' as former Prime Minister, David Cameron described it make organisation design and development work really challenging.

Q What does this context mean for your organisation design practice?

I've come back time and again to the 10 rules of thumb for change agents they keep me going in the low moments and remind me that organisation design is a type of change and it takes persistence, resilience and courage to do it. My 3 favourite 'rules' are: Keep an optimistic bias, never work uphill, and start where the client is.

Many times I've thought that I'm in an unfathomable Alice in Wonderland environment and I'll never find my way out and even further off is the possibility of making the organisational environment 'fit for the 21st century'. In these moments I found the theories and practices of 'Wicked Problems' very helpful as we develop the 'test and learn' way of doing organisation design.

When I feel I'm not 'one of us' in the work I pick up Debra Meyerson's research on Tempered Radicals and in that same vein recently read a wonderful piece by David Brooks At the edge of inside which talks about: 'those who are at the edge of the inside. These people are within the organization, but they're not subsumed by the group think. They work at the boundaries, bridges and entranceways'. This makes me think that organisation design is not about designing ourselves into a new way of living, but living ourselves into a new way of designing (praxis over theory) and living differently from others is not the easiest thing in a community.

Q What makes your heart sing?

The gains are so delightful. We see them often but there's no cause/effect visible that we can measure (unfortunately). For example, our work has proposed big structural changes as necessary ways forward if we are to meet our organisational objectives and several of these, dismissed at the initial 'hearing' are now being taken up and worked with. So although it's hard to 'prove our value' we have lots of circumstantial evidence that the stones we throw into the pond are making ripples.

Alongside the consulting work we're having great success with our organisation design capability building. It's gaining ground with each cohort intake and we're on the road to getting it accredited in the near future. Helping enthusiastic and energetic people understand that an organisation is a system and can't be changed through an 'org chart' view of it is great, and hearing their stories of taking risks, giving things a go, not waiting for 'permission' and seeing them take small steps and then bigger steps towards greater confidence as they apply their learning is really rewarding.

But what I makes my heart sing most loudly is the joy of working with a hugely committed workforce and an incredible team of people who are willing to dive in there and get stuff done and who find the time and energy to support each other, laugh a lot and keep on learning. #ODProud indeed.

What makes your heart sing or gives you occasional journey home in despair as you do your organisation design work? How does it inform your OD practice? Let me know.

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