What are the ‘first principles’ of organization design?

I’ve found Mumsnet, I’ve read two ‘how to be a grandmother’ books, and I’ve looked at the bewildering array of baby products – My breast friend topping my list on this score!

My daughter now has a 6-week old baby, and I’m rapidly learning that everything I knew about bringing up two children myself – who have both turned into wonderful adults – has changed and I better get learning, rapidly.  Things are different now.    But surely, there are some first principles of child rearing – if so, what are they?  (Elon Musk says, “First principles are a kind of physics way of looking at the world. You boil things down to the most fundamental truths and say, ‘What are we sure is true?’)

This flashed through my mind when I was on a call to colleagues at the Organization Design Forum (ODF).  We were discussing 3 questions: ‘What are you noticing about the theory and practice of organization design today? What are the implications for practitioners? What can/should ODF be doing to help support practitioners given these trends?

These are three big questions to cover in an hour with about 15 people.  I found the call somewhat troubling and during it I was struggling to think why.   But now I’ve had some time to reflect it seems to be related to the child-rearing thought.

One of the early comments made by colleagues was that many people working in organization design don’t understand the ‘first principles’ of it.  I think they were thinking that there are some ‘fundamental truths’ from which to do organization design.  I’m not convinced that there are.

Similarly, I don’t think there are any ‘fundamental truths’ about child rearing.  For example, in the world of child-care there is no fundamental truth that ‘the baby’s sleeping position most always be with the head pointing due north’ although it was the way to do things in 1878.  And, funnily enough, we do seem to have the notion today that organizations must be guided by their ‘true north’– in both cases, these are fads determined by culture and context.

As practices, resources, research findings and theories evolve in child-rearing so they do in organization design, the idea that there are fundamental truths underpinning organization design is as much a fallacy as believing there are some fundamental truths in child-rearing.  (See the book Raising Children: Surprising Insights from other Cultures.)

Certainly, my child-rearing practices differed from my mother’s, as do mine from my daughter’s.  However, what I think my mother and I found helpful, and I suspect my daughter will too, was applying some guiding principles, e.g. that we should bring up healthy – mind, body, spirit –  children,  in the context of understanding that children have rights.

This combination of guiding principles (not fundamental truths) and children’s rights enabled us to child-rear effectively in a way that matched our particular time and place.

A similar approach could work for organization design.  There are already some principles around ‘good work’, see for example Good Work: When Excellence and Ethics Meet or Good work: the Taylor review of modern working practices that has just been published in the UK.

This report suggests that good work ‘is work that is engaging, gives people a voice, treats them fairly, is good for their wellbeing, and helps them to progress. It should be positive for individuals, but also lead to wider positive organisational and economic outcomes: higher levels of productivity and output, and greater innovation and adaptability.’

These are quasi principles that could be used in organisation design and these, combined with local employment rights, would give a useful framework for organisation design, leaving the way of doing it open to various approaches.  Alternatively, there are several sets of design principles for ‘good design’ we could use e.g. Dieter Rams’.

Returning to the three questions we were discussing, ‘What are you noticing about the theory and practice of organization design today? What are the implications for practitioners? What can/should ODF be doing to help support practitioners given these trends?’  I’m thinking that as there are no ‘fundamental truths’ about organization design we could propose some principles for good work or good design,  encourage organization designers to look at the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work, help people look at organization design practice in new and innovative ways that make use of critical thinking and not faddism, and abandon some of our sacred cows around ‘how to do it’.

What’s your view?  Do you think there are fundamental truths around organization design?  Do you think there are ‘good work’ or design principles and employment rights the ODF could support practitioners using?  Let me know.

Image: http://bit.ly/2iMKvyk

2 thoughts on “What are the ‘first principles’ of organization design?”

  1. I really enjoyed this post Naomi. It got me thinking about our purpose (better work and working lives); the principles that underpin our new CIPD Professional Standards Framework; and their relevance as guiding principles for good organisational design. Best regards, Warren Howlett

  2. Naomi, I do believe that there are first principles, or what I call “generic design principles”. The two most important ones are: 1) Minimizing coupling, or what one can call goal conflicts, and 2) Minimizing coordination costs. These are like axioms, in the sense that they cannot be proven, but there are no counter-examples (i.e., one cannot find a case where you would deliberately want to introduce goal conflicts or maximize coordination costs). All organizational models can be evaluated based on these two criteria.

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