Supporting a micro organisation design

I’ve been in discussion for a while with a client who wanted further support with her micro organisation which she decided to expand by about 25% and expects the expansion to have significant impact on other organisational members.  She’s a pretty demanding client with clear views on how things should be done but over time we’ve built up a trusting relationship realising as consultant, Michael Johnson notes, ‘When you’re in an environment where you’re having substantial change in the organization, there will be natural conflict. There will be times when the consultant does not perform, and times when the organization also fails to meet expectations.’

So, I felt reasonably confident that on this next assignment I’d be ok.  She was a little vague on assignment start dates – plus or minus a couple of weeks, and she said she might call me up suddenly.  I wondered if I’d be able to drop everything and come at very short notice.

Fortunately I’d put contingency plans in place and the call came last Friday.

I’m now engaged in my new assignment, supporting my daughter’s family of new-born, 2, 9, and 13 year olds. (New-born is the only girl.  We don’t know yet what her pronouns are – for the moment we are using she/her).

It’s not the typical consulting assignment, for a start it’s 24 hours a day – well beyond the maximum weekly working hours allowed, it involves very frequent lifting of heavyish  weight (13 kg)  with no way of enforcing a no lifting policy and it’s a hotbed of competing priorities that are all clustered only in the top left hand box of the Eisenhower matrix  (urgent & important).

Life since Friday 27 September has been a whirlwind of washing up, washing machine filling, hanging wet clothes, folding dry clothes, putting clothes on people, taking clothes off people (here people = children), running to the supermarket, making tea and toast for various, going to and from a) childminder  b) primary school, becoming a wet-wipe addict (bums, faces, surfaces etc – not the same wet-wipe), unblocking sinks – me one, plumber second one, ensuring correct items are in back-packs: football kit, table tennis kit, reading book, homework book, drinks, snacks, permission slips  … Plus lots of other things and the joys of disturbed nights – Friday night sharing my bed with the 2-year old and the 9-year old.  (The 13-year old was away – sensibly – at a Woodcraft Folk camp). Saturday night sharing my bed with the 2-year old from 03:00 – 06:30 when I got up and he stayed soundly asleep.

A couple of hours into the first night I remembered my own parenting assignment when someone sent me the The String & Octopus Guide to Parenthood.  It’s 12 simple tests for expectant parents to take to prepare themselves for the real-life experience of being a mother or father.

Test 3 is: ‘To discover how the nights will feel, walk around the living room from 5pm to 10pm carrying a wet bag weighing approximately 8-12 lbs. At 10pm put the bag down, set the alarm for midnight, and go to sleep. Get up at 12 and walk around the living room again, with the bag, till 1am. Put the alarm on for 3am. As you can’t get back to sleep get up at 2am and make a drink. Go to bed at 2.45am. Get up again at 3am when the alarm goes off. Sing songs in the dark until 4am. Put the alarm on for 5am. Get up. Make breakfast. Keep this up for 5 years. Look cheerful.’

The 12 tests should be mandated for grandparents (as they will have forgotten what their first experience of parenting was like).

It’s not quite a normal day in the office, but it does bear some striking similarities:

  • I’ve substituted wet wipes for post notes, and unblocking sinks for getting a committee paper through the clearance process.
  • I’ve applied multiple conflict management techniques – easily transferable from adult leaders to children (but they don’t always work!)
  • I use Trello in my daily organisation design work and I’ve added a new board for the family.
  • I’m multi-tasking with what feels like one hand tied behind my back – the office scenario is something like taking a phone call while photocopying and looking for another ream of copy paper simultaneously, the domestic equivalent is the baby in one arm, dressing the toddler with the other, with What’s App on speaker phone telling the mother what’s going on.

Beyond the day to day similarities, I’m asking myself if the thirty or so years that I’ve spent in organisation design helped now I am in this particular assignment.  Yes, in theory,    I’m considering advising, for example:

  • Applying some agile methodology principles.  Take a look at the Agile Practices for Families: Iterating with Children and Parents which could systematize and standardize things.
  • Reviewing their performance management system to make it transparent, simple, effective, consistent and reinforcing of their purpose.
  • Getting the right (in this case, physical) structures that will aid performance/productivity – more coat hooks, a specific place for like objects e.g. all balls in the ball box, etc.
  • Assigning clear roles and accountabilities , particularly for repetitive processes like washing up.  I considered the RACI matrix but I’m not a great fan of it.

As in several assignments I’ve been involved in over the years, getting agreement to implement is tricky given the usual short term daily pressures.   In this case, the organisational scenario is incredibly like test 5 in the String and Octopus Guide:

Get ready to go out. Wait outside the loo for half an hour. Go out the front door. Come in again. Go out. Come back in.  Go out again. Walk down the front path. Walk back up it. Walk down it again. Walk very slowly down the road for 5 minutes. Stop to inspect minutely every cigarette end, piece of used chewing gum, dirty tissue and dead insect along the way. Retrace your steps. Scream that you’ve had as much as you can stand, until the neighbours come out and stare at you. Give up and go back into the house. You are now just about ready to try taking children to childminder/school.

Even if we did implement, there’s no guarantee that implementing the changes would benefit the organisation – assuming we could measure the benefits.   Transformation could fail for several of the reasons Kotter mentions:

  • Not Establishing a Great Enough Sense of Urgency – the family’s functioned quite well enough so far so why bother changing (although adding the additional child may force urgency and create the ‘burning platform’)
  • Not Creating a Powerful Enough Guiding Coalition – we may be able to mandate a specific place for like objects but we need to get all family members to agree to put them there (with a good reason to)
  • Not Systematically Planning For and Creating Short-Term Wins – Kotter points out that ‘Without short-term wins, too many people give up or actively join the ranks of those people who have been resisting.’  Short term wins for differing ages poses a challenge equal to that of trying a ‘one size fits all’ employee win.

But with or without implementation in the same way that work brings rewards as well as frustrations, my current assignment is hugely rewarding and minimally frustrating.   With thanks to my employer for enabling the (grand)parent leave to do this.

Are families micro-organisations? Can you use organisation design principles with them?  Let me know.




3 thoughts on “Supporting a micro organisation design”

  1. Naomi, as hilarious as this is, it is so, so true of what goes on in organisations! What a superb analogy. Thank you for a great read. Would you allow me to make use of this blog in some of my Org Design workshop sessions?

  2. Great post! Truly hilarious, but opens up a great question: do org design practices and management techniques really pass the test of real life? Whatever your results might be, I just want to add one aspect. All the time I’ve had a member of my team going on Maternity Leave, when she came back she had gained an impressive advantage in anything linked to organising. Thanks!

  3. This was hysterical and I am going to check out the Octopus Guide. I remember my shock of trying to leave the house with my newborn daughter on going to the doctor’s using public transport. Just as we were about to leave the house, she soiled her nappy and I had to push the buggy back in again, and change her. Then she decided to vomit on her babygrow, and then I had to change her. By the time, I finished doing all of this, we were late for the appointment. And I realised that any time I want to leave the house and go somewhere, I need to factor in at least two hours prep time!

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