Organisation design and the five crises

With signed contract in hand, I’ve decided that 1 August, 2020 is the day I begin writing the third edition of my book The Economist Guide to Organisation Design.

The corollary of that decision is that the blogs I write in the coming months will follow the book writing flow and may not be weekly but more spasmodic.  I have to keep up a disciplined pace on the writing – the submission date of the draft is end May 2021.

Last September asked my blog readers whether I should write a third edition.  I was in two minds about it. What tipped the balance in favour of writing it was the coronavirus – Covid-19 crisis.

Covid-19’s impacts have triggered, exacerbated and/or highlighted the five concurrent global crises we are now living with:  health, economic, humanitarian, political and climate.   Both individually and collectively these crises are forcing organisational rethinks and redesigns.   I can’t think of any organisations which are untouched by one or more of them ways not experienced or thought about pre-Covid.

This makes the third edition and exciting and challenging task.  I’m wondering how to pitch it at a level that is helpful to managers.  Think about some of the design implications they are facing in relation to the five concurrent crisis:

Health:  As we don’t know how Covid-19 will play out,  we are assuming we will have to maintain social distancing and remote working for some months or possibly years.   With this in mind organisational decision makers are redesigning their physical layoutsremote working policies, and grappling with questions similar to ones this organisation asking:

  • Should we institute a business travel policy that anyone returning from a business trip cannot come into the office for 2 weeks?
  • Should we tell people who usually come to the office by public transport to travel by car or bike instead?
  • Should we allow staff who travel to foreign countries on holiday (even ‘green’ ones) back to the office within 2 weeks of their return?

Design questions on this include:  How do we design safe workspaces?  What systems and processes may need redesign for remote working?  What are we assuming about work location and the design of work?

Economic:  Oxford University economist Kate Raworth, author of Doughnut Economics, says ‘The need for new economic thinking is most evident than ever. I’m planning a series of video blogs exploring the coronavirus crisis through the lens of Doughnut Economics.’  In her twitter thread on the blogs she quotes Buckminster Fuller “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

One existing model that may be becoming obsolete is that of the Rational Economic Man.  Watch a delightful rap puppet video between three students and their economics professor.While the professor argues that Economic Man – a rational, self-interested, money-driven being – serves the theory well, the students counter that a more nuanced portrait reflecting community, generosity and uncertainty is now essential. A musical puppet adventure challenging the heart of outdated economic thinking ensues.’    Supposing organisation leaders and designers rejected the Rational Economic Man what new design thinking, approaches and models would we develop that rendered our old approaches obsolete  and helped to create new types of thriving businesses.

Humanitarian: Humanitarian assistance is ‘intended to save lives, alleviate suffering and maintain human dignity during and after man-made crises and disasters caused by natural hazards, as well as to prevent and strengthen preparedness for when such situations occur.’

The IPPF points out that:  ‘While most countries are currently struggling to respond to COVID-19, the pandemic poses a particularly dire threat in fragile and humanitarian settings. An estimated 1.8 billion people live in fragile contexts worldwide, including 168 million in need of humanitarian assistance.’  Covid-19 is having an immense impact on the operation of humanitarian organisations.  “In humanitarian response, there will be a ‘before’ and ‘after’ COVID-19,” Ed Schenkenberg van Mierop, executive director of the think tank HERE-Geneva, wrote in late March.’

But an analysis from The New Humanitarian suggests that ‘as the crisis born of this global pandemic has evolved, some of the promises of deep transformation in a humanitarian aid sector that has long resisted reform have proven overly optimistic – at least so far.’ The analysis offers ‘13 ways the pandemic may change the future of humanitarianism – and the forces of resistance that may get in the way,’ and asks the question:  How do you think COVID-19 will transform the humanitarian aid sector?

Political:  The International Foundation for Electoral Systems, as of July 15 2020, has recorded election postponements in 62 countries and eight territories, with a total of 108 election events postponed.  They note that ‘Countries are also grappling with how to modify election procedures to minimize the risk for COVID-19 transmission, or change the system for voting completely to avoid the need for voters to physically go to the polls.’   These imply a whole range of re-designs of voting systems.  At the same time, Covid-19 is having a serious impact on trade, trade treaties and supply chains.

The WTO writes that ‘New trade measures are being taken by governments every day in response to COVID-19. If the different actors engaged in supply chains are not aware of these new requirements, they can struggle to adapt to the new conditions, thereby risking unnecessary disruptions. For example, exporters and importers need to know about new procedures and regulations affecting exports and imports, newly introduced export restrictions, tariffs, taxes and regulations, and new customs rules and transportation regulations.’ This shifting political context will continue to have organisation design implications.

Climate:  It’s cheering to read that ‘A new analysis of policies designed to promote economic recovery following the global coronavirus pandemic has led the experts to recommend ten concrete measures that will slow global warming while creating new jobs. … A group of more than 30 UK universities, formed to help deliver positive outcomes at the UN Climate Summit in Glasgow (COP26), have highlighted the fiscal recovery policies that promise to bring both short-term high economic impact and long-term structural change to ensure the UK meets its 2050 climate goals.  I’m wondering how many organisations will factor climate change action into their redesigning their operations as a response to Covid-19.

As I have conversations with organisation design colleagues on the way the practice is evolving as these crises evolve, I’m wondering how much of the book I’ll need to re-write completely.   Do you think organisation design practice is evolving at a speed necessary to design in the context of these five current and concurrent crises?  Let me know.