Questions for OD practitioners

On Friday and Saturday I was at the EODF conference, and was honoured to be labeled 'special guest' and give one of the six keynote presentations. Although nerve-wracking it was a good reflective experience for me.

I wrote about the challenge I'd set myself last week.(Being on the edge of inside). Briefly it was about what made my heart sing and my heart despair in the work that I do. I turned those parts into a 20 minute presentation of 10 slides each with one or two images rather than wordy bullets about what I was going to say (in case I didn't stick to the script).

Fortunately a couple of days before the presentation I asked a colleague if he'd be willing to listen to the presentation and offer feedback and comments as a rehearsal. He did a great job and in the course of our discussion I realized I'd left out something I'd promised to people which was to 'pose some fundamental questions for reflection on organisation design theory and practice'.

This was a useful activity for me in thinking on my own OD practice and, ready for the conference, I came up with the following (in bold):

1. If you look at performance stats for an organisation – take the Marks & Spencer ones as an example – what are the stats telling you that could point to design challenges or opportunities and what aren't the stats telling you?

2. Once you know the challenge – the M & S one is to 'resurrect sales' – where do you actually start the design process?

3. The two questions above are about trying to get some context, information, and 'feel' for the organisation so that you can find a sensible entry point for design work. How much of an organisation's context do designers need to have before they can do good design work or does having a team of internal and external consultants working together provide better design solutions?

4. Newcomers to organisations (whether as new hires or external consultants) have to rapidly 'read' the organisation if they are to work successfully in it. But I'm wondering whether some organisations are easier to read than others and my question here is – 'is organisation design about making an organisation legible? (See my blog that references organisational legibility).

5. One of my 'rules of thumb' (thx Herb Shepard) is 'start where the system is', but this can be a double edge sword. How best should designers adapt their methods and techniques to suit the context – without losing the 'bite' or slipping into collusion with the context?

6. This (Q5 above) is a constant question of mine to myself and what I'm doing in terms of adaptation is take some of the theories, thinking, and practices of wicked problems and applying these into the organisation design work and this approach is going well. So my question here is 'Is it time to stop using a programmatic/formulaic approach, with phases and steps, to organisation design – how useful is this in a complex system?'

7. Using a wicked problem approach to organisation design means I'm now using a different style of doing it – much more of a movement than a mandate, not quite a stealth approach but towards that. What are the different styles of doing organisation design – stealth, challenge, radical, expert, traditional – are we or should we be consciously doing organisation design work in a particular style and what are the impacts and consequences of designing in different styles – think Gaudi v Frank Lloyd Wright.

8. Entering the realm of wicked problems means many things one of which is there isn't a clear cause/effect 'outcome'. This makes it difficult for organisation designers to prove their value. In the absence of cause/effect what signifies organisation design value add? (Answers welcome here).

9. As we do our work we're noticing that inviting lots of people to participate in the design work is helpful , and in general (not just in my organisation) I observe that organisation design skills and understanding are increasingly being sought. Who most needs them in an organisation and how can they be cheaply and effectively taught or transmitted?

10. My final slide is about participation – what I'm learning is, it is not that we consultants design the organisation it's the people in it who do. How can we work better with that realization?

What fundamental questions for reflection on organisation design theory and practice would you pose? Let me know.

Thanks Bill Zybach for the rehearsal discussion.

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