Organisation design slogans

‘In all activities, train with slogans’, was on the card I randomly picked from my pack of Pema Chodron’s Compassion Cards.  They’re based on lojong (“mind training”) teachings from The Great Path of Awakening by the nineteenth-century Tibetan teacher Jamgön Kongtrül the Great, and, in Chodron’s words ‘are organized around seven points that contain fifty-nine pithy slogans that remind us how to awaken our hearts.’   During November I’m picking one per day to reflect on at points during the day.

This particular card, rather than heading me towards ‘awakening my heart’, pointed me towards the slogans I use when I’m talking about organisation design!  (This is similar to the findings of an interesting research article, that organisational mindfulness as a ‘popular as a stress reduction technique’, misses the tenets of the original practice.)

I wondered if I had enough slogans to make an organisation design card deck, but found not.  I do, however, use slogans.  Five that I say repeatedly in organisation design courses I facilitate, and also deploy in my own work are:

  • Follow the work: this relates to identifying the work activities necessary, in the order that makes sense, to deliver the desired outcome.
  • Fix the structure last not first: this means once you know the work activities and some of the attributes of these volume, skill level required, frequency then you can start organising in a way that enables the work to get done.
  • Roles not people: this is about thinking about the work, skill level and so on BEFORE, you start to think about the individual who is going to do it.
  • All models are wrong some models are useful: this means stay sceptical about the latest hype, Boston box, 6-points to success, etc. Use models, prescriptions and ‘benchmark data’ judiciously.
  • Think ideal not future: this suggests not trying to paint a ‘future’ but to consider the ‘ideal’ (your ‘ideal’ home is much easier to describe than your ‘future’ home – which is an unknown).

The day of the slogan card, someone who’d been on one of my courses, emailed me saying:

‘I have a question about org design to get your guidance on if I can.  How, in practice, do you separate people from positions in organisation design?

I’m working on a reorg at the moment where we have worked through the activities to get a logical structure which aligns to the department’s purpose and deliverables and are now at the stage of thinking about people to fill the jobs.

Although the principle of ‘think about the job, not the people’ is great in theory, my experience currently and from the past tells me management (and indeed HR) struggle with the implications of this, to the extent where the people considerations often inform the structure.

My current experience is working with a VP where our theory of the org design says one thing but, in the VP’s words, ‘being pragmatic, we can’t have that person reporting into them or leave this person without a job because of the repercussions’. How do you deal with this situation where the design comes up against the practicalities of what it means for people, and is it actually pragmatic or useful anyway for a client to try and separate the two?’

It’s a useful question, and one that I frequently get asked. It instantly challenges my slogans ‘follow the work’, ‘fix the structure last not first’ and ‘roles not people’.

But, it’s natural and right that leaders want to think about the people they’ve got and how they will accommodate them into any new design.   And also, that people want to think about ‘where’s my job?’

The point is not to be completely purist and ignore these responses, but to get a long way into the design – usually I suggest emerging with three options of high-level designs with their proposed structures (org chart), before you start to think about the individuals.  Q5 Partners has an excellent 3-minute video, Forget Personality, explaining the rationale for this.

Additionally, if you allow consideration of individuals who want/need roles to drive the organisation chart you’re taking a high-risk approach:

  • You may be compromising your customer/user experience by not taking a service design approach that ‘helps us to understand, improve or rethink end to end services, starting with the user’.
  • You may miss opportunities for efficiency and/or effectiveness gains if you focus on what you want to give an individual or individuals.
  • You may be accused of favoritism, unfairness or lack of transparency in why your new organisation chart is the way it is.

Organisation design involves decisions and choices that inevitably involve politics.  If we take the view that designing around an organisation’s people rather than designing around its work or its customers, is not ‘pragmatic’, as the person who emailed me said, but ‘political’ then we have a possibility of exploring the politics of the decisions and choices being put forward.

A fellow org designer believes ‘you can’t ever eliminate the people/politics part of organisation design’, and I agree with him.  Similarly, Dianne Lewis, in her old but useful 2002 article ‘The place of organizational politics in strategic change’ notes, ‘Political motives will also sometimes drive change and political tactics will always be used in some measure in the implementation of change. We therefore need to see these tactics in both positive and negative ways and not try to eliminate them altogether.’

This is good advice as all design is political.  We can’t eliminate the politics in organisation design work.  They are usually front and centre of the inevitable trade-offs, resistance to, or acceptance of,  your design options even if this is not explicitly acknowledged.  They impact the choices and decisions you make around the chosen design and the way you implement it.

Recognising that politics are inherent in organisation design choices and decisions, acknowledging this and discussing the impact and implications can be hard to do but it is better to talk about it than not to.  (Not talking about it risks derailment further down the line).

A fellow organisation designer, talking on this said, ‘it is all about trade-offs, do you put more priority on workflows and a structure that better supports strategy or one which is more inclined to be accepted by people, and has less people repercussions?  Certain scenarios will have one trump the other, and the dialogue on the politics is what it’s all about.’

Additionally, politics play significant part in the method of actually doing the organisation designing – choices around top down design, bottom up design, participative design, etc are situational and can be potentially be made with the conscious aim of shifting the political dynamics or reinforcing them.

I need another slogan – Recognise the politics:  this means accepting that we are working in a political landscape and we must keep an open questioning, reflective inquiry on it.  I don’t think we do enough of that.

What’s your view on the politics in organisation design?   Do you have a slogan on it?  What organisation design slogans to you work with?  Let me know.