Handling multiple disjointed pieces of design work

During the week, I was contacted by someone I used to work with – I'll call him Bill – asking for help on a piece of work he'd just been asked to manage. Briefly his manager had asked him to develop a Business Plan for the Unit (comprising around 4000 people) along with an overarching narrative on proposed design changes.

This was no blank page. Bill told me that there's much work going on but in disjointed pockets. He mentioned: one piece looking at the core Unit functions, another at business processes that traverse his Unit and other Units, a third looking at a wide-reaching re-design of a different Unit but one that his Unit is interdependent with, and a fourth piece aimed at ironing out some overlaps and inefficiencies looking at a newly formed group within the Unit. Additionally, there are some small bits of redesign work in discrete work areas. The Unit as a whole has to make a headcount reduction, control costs, drive value, and manage any potential operational risks.

He was concerned on four points:
a) that people, without the necessary OD skills, are squeezing in design work when they are also under intense pressure in their 'day jobs'
b) the local design changes going on may not add up to anything that looks 'joined up' at a Unit level or aimed at the same strategy/delivery outcomes when they are completed
c) that people doing design work in one pocket are unaware of, and haven't tested, the possible consequences and knock-on effects in another part of the Unit, or elsewhere in the organisation
d) that the cultural and behavioural changes needed to work in new technology-enabled ways is being lost in the desire to deliver 'numbers'

Of further concern to him is that he has to pull together a report with recommendations very quickly and doesn't feel he has the requisite skill set himself to do this. (Hence the call).

Most OD consultants have found themselves in Bill's situation at some point. There's rarely a clean canvas to start work on and there are many possible ways forward. These include:

  • Pulling all the pieces together, rescoping, and redirecting into an overarching 'programme' that includes the cultural and behavioural elements (Purist)
  • Assessing the common ground between pieces of work and actively helping shape consistency towards heading in the same direction (Pragmatic)
  • Letting people get on with the designs they're working on but identifying the main risks being incurred and encouraging them to address these collectively (Potentially risky)

Given things have to be 'sorted' quickly I'd go for the pragmatic response but in a participative way. (If you're interested in Socio-Technical Systems Design there's a good explanation of the Participative Design Workshops the practitioners of the approach advocate).

I recommend inviting the leads of the various pieces of work to a workshop, where they describe what they are aiming for. They then look at the Unit strategy and direction and its contribution to the organisational strategy/direction. The group could then do a consistency check of their pieces of work against a checklist or diagnostic. One, Alignment Matrix, that I have used is a good conversation starter. This would begin to show where there are gaps, missed opportunities, heading off in different directions, and so on.

Having done this, the group decides how to take the work forward. I think a wider participative process involving people who are actually doing the work being (re)designed is the best way. See my article A different way to tackle problems on ways for doing this, or download a great article Faster, Shorter, Cheaper May Be Simple; It's Never Easy.

This type of participative approach both helps disconnected pieces join up, and helps create conditions for collaboration and connectedness. It also starts to illustrate that organisation design work is multi-faceted and does not get good outcomes by working mainly to an organisation chart/top down approach. (See an article I was just sent that explores some of this by Niels Pflaeging).

How would you advise Bill? Let me know.