Five myths of organisation design – part 2

Last week I explored one of five organisation design myths  – that design is about the organisation chart – through asking Robert Segal’s three questions

  • Those of origin – why and how myth arises
  • Those of function – why and how the myth persists.
  • Those of need – what need does the myth fulfil and what need makes it last by continuing to fulfil

I was looking at the myths as I’m doing a webinar on them and the date is looming.  I have to get the slides ready to send this week.  So, in what a friend calls a ‘twofer’ (i.e. two for one), I’m going to explore the other four briefly here, in order to give me the info for the webinar.   (Note that I’ve derived these myths from my experience – they’re not underpinned by extensive, empirical research).

The four are:

  • Leaders are in the best position to decide the design of an organisation
  • Organisation design is an intermittent process
  • Redesigning an organisation will solve its problems
  • There’s a right way to do organisation design

The myth that leaders are in the best position to decide the design of an organisation probably originates in the ‘heroic leader’ model of leadership.   In this model senior executives act as if they have all the answers and ‘use the power of their position to make decisions unilaterally … in a culture that worships the ability to score goals, usually in the form of advancing compelling solutions to problems, while downplaying facilitation [and reflection] as not being real work.’   The myth persists possibly because people are drawn to hero figures and we need them for various reasons.  See Heroes: what they do and why we need them.

However heroic leadership doesn’t result in a well-designed organisation, because no leader can know enough about the day to day operational work of the organisation to make design decisions alone (or at the executive-only level). Designing requires insight and participation from a diversity of employees and other stakeholders who represent the differing points of view/experiences in the organisation.  See Realising the Impact of Organisation Design: ten questions for business leaders.

Organisation design is an intermittent process – this myth seems to arise from an old belief that organisations are fairly stable and that a new design can solve a presenting significant problem and once that’s ‘solved’ equilibrium will be restored and the design can stay as is until another significant presenting problem arises.

This myth persists, I think, because there’s not much teaching/learning for leaders/managers about design as a continuous process.  Nor do they recognise that continuous design is increasingly necessary today because, as Nick Tune a blog writer says, ‘Modern organisations need to move fast, continuously getting feedback from customers …  in constantly evolving competitive markets, customer needs are always changing. Organisations must continuously adapt.’ He offers an approach to continuous organisation design based on Simon Wardley’s strategy maps. From my observations and experience, the myth fulfils the perceived need – often reinforced in performance objectives – to pay more attention to business as usual/taking action and less attention to reflection, learning and challenging – all necessary to keep organisations flourishing.

Redesigning an organisation will solve its problems.  As a McKinsey article notes ‘redesigns that merely address the immediate pain points often end up creating a new set of problems.’   While Deloitte suggests that from their research ‘conducted on 130 organisation design projects from their global client base … fewer than 20% of those projects exceeded the original business case values that were used to justify them in the first place.’  The myth that organisation design will solve a business problem seems to stem from a feeling that changing the lines and boxes on the organisation chart is ‘design’ (related to myth one that organisation design is about the organisation chart).   It may derive from wishful thinking, ignorance, or both (or something completely different) but re/design is not straightforward.

Deloitte warns that ‘Sometimes changing an organisation design can be the wrong approach to address current issues.  It is vital to be very clear on why you undertake a redesign.’ And McKinsey confirms this warning, saying, ‘Companies should therefore be clear, at the outset, about what the redesign is intended to achieve and ensure that this aspiration is inextricably linked to strategy.’

I’d like to know what need this myth fulfils but, hazarding a guess, it’s the need for action over reflection, or possibly a lack of a theoretical knowledge of organisations as complex systems. To help dispel this myth I recommend a short, free Futurelearn course Decision Making in a Complex and Uncertain World in their Business and Management series and another Systems Thinking and Complexity.

There’s a right way to do organisation design.  The origins of this myth probably arise from articles from consultancies and proponents of a specific method.  McKinsey, for example, tells us the ‘9 golden rules’ to get organisation design right.  Strategy+Business offers 10 Principles of Organisation Design, BCG sells Smart Design for Performance while Requisite Restructuring© will ‘Design cost-effective organizational structure that fits the complexity of the company’s value chain.’  There are hundreds of others all somewhat the same and somewhat different in their approaches.

This myth persists because people seem to desire ‘a firm answer to a question and [have] an aversion toward ambiguity, [there’s a] drive for certainty in the face of a less than certain world. When faced with heightened ambiguity and a lack of clear-cut answers, we need to know—and as quickly as possible.’  There’s a tendency to look for ‘cognitive closure’ and I’ve been in situations where I’ve been asked to give someone the ‘right answer’ to various organisation design options.   When I say we can’t know what the ‘right answer’ is we can only work on best information to make somewhat informed choices my response usually doesn’t go down that well.  (I always like what I think is a line from a Van Morrison song ‘There ain’t no why, there just is’ but I’ve never been able to track down the source).

The myth of the ‘right way’ fulfils the need for certainty. Not much organisation design work would be sold by consultants who said they were going to work with what emerges from some delving into what’s going on in an organisation.  Having a structured methodology and an assurance it will work is more comforting to clients.  Working with the need for assurance and certainty is hard if you take the view that organisations are complex emergent systems.  The Cynefin Framework offers an approach.  As David Snowden says, ‘Most situations and decisions in organizations are complex because some major change—a bad quarter, a shift in management, a merger or acquisition—introduces unpredictability and flux. In this domain, we can understand why things happen only in retrospect. Instructive patterns, however, can emerge if the leader conducts experiments that are safe to fail. That is why, instead of attempting to impose a course of action, leaders must patiently allow the path forward to reveal itself. They need to probe first, then sense, and then respond.’  Too few leaders have the courage and patience for that but maybe they can learn?

What do you do when facing an organisation design myth in your work?  Let me know.

Image: Debunking the myth