Conversations on Leaders with Nick and Nick

Nick Richmond, Chair of the Organisation Design Institute, and I had a conversation last week on leading organisation design work.  Nick is doing some work on this as he’s found there isn’t much discussion or academic research on the topic.  He was asking if I knew of any.  Although there’s a lot of info/research on leading organisational change and you could argue that organisation design heralds/is change, that isn’t what he is looking for.  It’s more about considering the design of an organisation and how you lead a redesign of it (or design it from scratch).

In my book The Economist Guide to Organisation Design, the one I’m thinking of writing a third edition of, I do have a chapter on Leadership and Organisation Design and in it I note that:

 ‘Organisation design success depends on the complex interactions of four broad leadership groups: internal formal leaders, internal informal leaders, external formal leaders and external informal leaders or opinion influencers. Each of these groups has at their disposal various sources of power, and although formal leaders may have access to more of these than informal leaders, the way the power is wielded is an important determinant of the outcome. As martial arts practitioners know, soft as cotton can be as hard as steel.

Access to and use of power is one of several variables determining ability to lead. Others include style of attracting and holding on to followers; stability or instability of circumstances; personal motivation; and the organisation’s political landscape. The efficacy of a leader changes as the context changes, and someone who cannot adjust their style of leadership or draw on a different source of power is opening the door for someone else to seize the leadership role’.

Our discussion didn’t go down the power route.  Instead, we focused on role questions including:  What are the leadership roles in organisation design?  Are there different leader role at different points in the design process?  What are the respective roles of a business leader leading organisation design and an organisation design expert leading the work?  What impact does leader style or status have on organisation design?  Would we be able to look at specific films and discuss the role of leaders in them in relation to organisation design? (We touched on my blog on Ford v Ferrarri).

Nick mentioned a way of thinking about a leader’s role in organisation design, which comes from an article ‘A Framework for Consulting to Organizational Role’. According to authors James Krantz and Marc Mertz, ‘Role is a key component in any organizational change and a critical place for such change to be initiated.’  In their words, ‘the article offers both a framework for thinking about organizational role and a process for consulting to organizational “role holders.”’

The framework they present considers four dimensions of role.  The first two are,  ‘role as taken and role as given. The role holder’s internalized and then enacted view/construction of her or his role, how it is construed and interpreted subjectively, is the individual’s role as taken. “Role influencers” — those the role holder is working for and/or with – define the individual’s role as given. The given and taken aspects of role produce its authorization.’

The second two are the task and sentient aspects,  ‘The task system comprises the aspects of role that belong to the structures, procedures, and technologies, which exist independently of individuals within organizations.’  While, ‘the sentient system is the social, human process within an organization: the symbols, meanings, unconscious group forces and/or emotional significance experienced and attitudes and beliefs based on the needs, fantasies, and patterns of identification within a role and an organization.’

We discussed these four aspects plotted on a 2 x 2 matrix and thought that they could form the basis for discussing, reflecting on and agreeing various leaders’ roles in organisation design.

Different leader questions occurred in another conversation during the week in a conversation with Nick Obolensky on complex adaptive leadership.  His view is that for leaders to be effective they must be able to build networks and operate collaboratively not from a position of rank and power.  Through his work, he encourages leaders to learn how to enable and follow the people they lead, and followers to learn how to take the lead and be included in the dynamic of leadership.  He sees leadership as a dynamic to be managed and enabled, rather than a role to be exercised. ‘The more senior the role, the more this is needed’.

This conversation included the questions ‘how much do leaders need to know about complexity?’  ‘Can power and control leaders (what Nick Richmond called ‘heroic leaders’) become the ‘leaders who listen well, spot the solutions, and support those who propose them’?   How do organisations change when there is a ‘dynamic rather than attribute-driven approach to leadership?’  Can leaders learn to lead with confidence when they do not know, and do not have the answers?  How can leaders make time for mindful reflection on their leadership when they have multiple competing and urgent priorities?

As one of the tools to help answer these questions Nick advocates eight principles ‘to enable a team to do a very complex task without a leader.’   Organisation design is a complex set of tasks which are not amenable to a deterministic/mechanistic approach which, as Nick says, does not work well in VUCA environment and results in waste and sub-optimal results.

We talked specifically on one of his eight principles – ‘a few simple rules’ – that enable complexity to be leveraged. He gave an example of applying this principle to an expenses process.  When it was reduced to ‘self-authorise, spend for the good of the organisation, make your spend transparent to everyone’,  what had been a heavily administrative process, involving many policies and several layers of authorisation became streamlined, resulting in costs (and expense claims) going down.   Thinking about this, it could be that organisations don’t need to be ‘designed’, the design could emerge through determing and applying a few simple rules.  (See rules of flocking).

As Nick was talking on this I was reminded of the different, but related concept of ‘choice architecture’ which, I think,  is under-explored in organisation design work, and which earlier in the week Nick Richmond and I had mentioned.

I’m still pondering the discussions and the two Nicks’ questions around role and complexity.  They all have a significant bearing on the way organisations design is approached.  How would you answer them?  Let me know.

Image: Left side: A Framework for Consulting to Organizational Role  + Right side: eight principles

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