Leading design work

I'm writing the final chapter of my forthcoming book Organization Design: a practitioner's guide. I've got to the bit on business leaders and their role in design work, which I think calls on some specific skills which although useful in the 'day job' are not as essential as they are in taking a lead in design work. Here's a slightly shortened version of the section:

Leaders play a critical role in three ways in relation to organization design work: stating and explaining the 'why' of design or redesign, supporting people in making sense of the context that the re-design work is responding to, and telling the stories of how it is going.

There is no value in doing organization design work if the 'why' of doing it is not clear to people. Too frequently the 'why' is not obvious – if things are ticking along nicely then why change it, is a common attitude to proposed organization design work. 'Whys couched in terms like 'to be more adaptable', 'be fit for the future' or 'be more competitive' are not sufficient to convince people that the upheaval of redesigning is worth the effort. Nevertheless, it is that rather vague 'fit for the future' requirement that impels many organization redesigns.

It falls to the leaders to state the 'why' in terms that are meaningful to stakeholders so that they can understand how the new design will affect them. A leadership team that spends time really thinking through the 'Why redesign'?'question – its contribution to and impact on the work and the workforce – makes a big difference to the speed with which work can progress.

Explaining the 'why' of an organization redesign helps people make sense of what is going on. Leaders often see more of the context, and have more of the puzzle pieces than people who are focused on doing a particular task or role. Having access to the bigger picture puts the onus on leaders both to make sense of complex environments for themselves and then to support and work with others in their sense making so that a reasonably consistent and common view emerges.

Sense making is a collective and collaborative activity 'triggered by cues – such as issues, events or situations – for which the meaning is ambiguous and/or outcomes uncertain.' People typically become anxious in situations like this that violate their expectations. They expect leaders to interpret and make sense of the situation for or with them. Failure to do this on the leaders' parts leads to heightened anxiety and multiple individual interpretations of the situation.

Deborah Ancona, director of the MIT Leadership Center at the MIT Sloan School of Management explains how leaders go about sense making:

'This sense making ability is a particularly important predictor of leadership effectiveness right now. … It requires executives to let go of their old mental models and some of their core assumptions; to take in data from a wide variety of sources; to use the information they have to construct, with others, a "map" of what they think is going on; and to verify and update the map -— in part by conducting small experiments that provide the organization with more information.'

Researcher Sally Maitlis found that leaders approach their role of supporting collective sense making in one of four ways:

  • Guided where they are 'energetic in constructing and promoting understanding and explanations of events'
  • Fragmented where leaders are not trying to control or organize discussions but allowing stakeholders to generate alternative pictures
  • Restricted where leaders promote their own sense of what is going on with little stakeholder involvement
  • Minimal when both leaders and stakeholders await some other interpretation of the issues.

If leaders of organization design work take a combination of guided and fragmented sense-making approaches then stakeholders are more likely to feel involved in the design process. This is a tricky tension to work with. The guiding sets the framework and the outlines, the fragmenting allows for local or individual interpretation within the framework.

Explaining the 'why' and guiding stakeholder sense-making can be supported by storytelling. Be aware, though, that stories can be an effective and inspirational tool to both make sense of what happens in organizations, or to inspire, provoke or stimulate change. And stories can be used to mask the truth or to manipulate.

The skill of a leader in telling stories is to recognize that there are many stories possible from the same situation. (See the TED talk The Danger of the Single Story). Effective leaders, as story tellers, neither abuse their power, nor tell a single story. They tell many stories and they tell the stories from a position of equality and respect, illustrating organizational complexity, a diversity of views, and their own responses to uncertainty.

Stories told this way – that explain the why, and acknowledge uncertainty and anxiety – help build confidence in and emotional connections to the new design. They contribute to demonstrating authentic, transformational leadership.

What do you think the role of leaders is in organization design work? Let me know.