Are some organisation design concepts redundant?

A tweet last week from @NickGMRichmond, reads, ‘Great evidenced based provocation, “are some leadership concepts redundant?” see … the same is probably true of managing change and organisation development concepts. What do you think?’

I read the Oxford Review piece he linked to, which tells us ‘A new (2018) study by a team of researchers has conducted an extensive review of research literature to discover the extent of construct redundancy in the literature around leadership behaviours.’

I tracked down the source paper  ‘Construct redundancy in leader behaviors: A review and agenda for the future’,   and George Banks, one of the research team, kindly sent it to me. Their abstract reads, ‘Leadership remains a popular and heavily researched area in the social sciences. Such popularity has led to a proliferation of new constructs within the leadership domain. Here, we argue that such construct proliferation without pruning is unhealthy and violates the principle of parsimony. Our purpose was to examine construct redundancy via a comprehensive review of task-oriented, relational, passive, and inspirational leader behaviors as well as values-based and moral leadership behaviors.’

You might wonder why I’ve tried to locate the source document before I answer Nick’s question?  I’ve found that the whisper effect often amplifies any distortion as things get handed on.  I saw some distortion from the source article to The Oxford Review question is, ‘There are too many leadership concepts… but which ones are redundant?’ and then on to Nick’s question ‘Are some leadership concepts redundant?’  Both questions are useful but are likely to generate different discussions and outcomes, and they may well be different from any questions posed in the source document.  Whether or not this matters is also a question.

As a diversion, I also looked up the difference between ‘concept’ (Nick), ‘construct’ (source paper) and ‘concept/construct’ used interchangeably (Oxford Review).   Concept is a loose term representing a cognitive grouping that cannot be defined readily. ‘It has come to refer, in common usage, to any idea, process or thing that cannot be defined readily in another way.’  ‘Constructs are a way of bringing theory down to earth, helping to explain the different components of theories, as well as measure/observe their behaviour.’  Thus, leadership is the concept and leadership behaviour (the topic of the source document) one of the constructs within leadership.

At this point I decided that rather than quibble over concept, construct, either/both.  I would re-interpret (distort further?) and interpret Nick’s question as ‘Is there stuff we use to do organisation design work that is redundant’, thinking about this in three categories:

  • The process of designing – models, methodologies, approaches
  • The outcome of the process – the design (popularly believed to be an org chart)
  • The tools organisation designers use in the design process

The process of designing:  organisation designers often refer to a model e.g. Galbraith’s Star Model, McKinsey 7-S, Burke-Litwin, etc.   PeopleWiz consulting has done a nice job drawing on one of my books to construct a slide share comparing 5 popular models.  I think all five of these could be contenders for redundancy (though I did not get far with making this suggestion about 2 years ago).  None give sufficient visual attention to the organisation in an interdependent system of other organisations. There’s the missing piece of interconnectivity, not across the elements, which is there, but across to connected systems.

Many of the phased approaches to org design, I’d also put on the list as redundant.  It’s too easy to think that a design proceeds in an orderly phased way from contract, assess, design, plan to transition, transition, sustain (or similar).  Often, design approaches are much more of a chaotic muddle, working from someone’s new ‘org chart’, backwards and forwards (iterative?) towards a moving target, and trying to rescue processes, people and things-beyond-the-org-chart to include.   However, I often present a phased approach saying that the value is similar to that of a lifebelt in turbulence.

Organisation design attracts some some methodologies like requisite organisation or Viable System Model, or holacracy each with their aficionados.   I’d nominate some of these for redundancy as, in my view, they are too prescriptive in their application and thus are not fit for purpose in many organisations.   Now, I’ve written this I think some criteria for things being put on the redundant list would be helpful but I’m relying on experience (or bias?) as I’m on a time crunch.

The outcome of the process – the design:  believing that an organisation design is only an organisation chart is a belief ripe for redundancy.  It is much more than that.  An analogy is a vehicle in motion.  No-one would agree that only the external shell is the vehicle in motion.  The vehicle is all its processes and systems together with a competent driver, and able technicians to keep it in motion.

Many of the standard org charts might be heading towards redundancy.  As self-employment increases, automated processes do more routine work, self-organising teams grow in number,  and the rise of co-working spaces continues, an array of ‘lines and boxes’ representing ‘an organisation’ will lose value and focus of attention because we won’t really know what an organisation is.

The tools organisation designers use:  My blog – a toolkit of toolkits lists around a dozen toolkits containing checklists, frameworks, diagnostics, surveys, cards, etc  of the type organisation designers use.  Beyond the tools, designers use techniques of Large Group Interventions, focus groups, workshops, and so on.  Without trawling through them in some detail it’s difficult to highlight some that might be redundant.  It’s easier to look at those which are on the up – tools and techniques related to designing using software and data like Orgvue, Orgmapper,  intelliHR, and organisational network analysis.  I think it’s quite likely that these, combined with some of the data analytics, AI, and behavioural science tools will supersede many of the tools we have used up till now.

My view is that the way we think about organisations and their place in societal functioning and thus the way we ‘design’ them is both due for, and is undergoing, significant shifts.  There’s lots that will become redundant in the way we do it.

But I wonder whether this is ‘a good thing’.  Consider ‘Some elementary principles from reliability engineering, where engineered redundancy is a valued part of systems design. … For example, a central tenet of reliability engineering is that reliability always increases as redundant components are added to a system’.  Should we instead embrace what may appear to be redundant stuff in our design process, outcomes and tools?

What would be your criteria for things to go on the organisation design redundancy list?  What would you put on the list?  And should we embrace redundancy in organisation design work?  Let me know.

Image: Diagram of Electro-Hydraulic Control System