Introducing organisation design – part 1

introducing organisation design

When I wrote my Fresh Start blog last week, I had in my mind that there would be a weekly blog at least until the end of May 2021 when the draft of the book was submitted.  I’ve now checked my schedule – why didn’t I do this before? –  and see that the blog is actually alternate weeks.  So, theoretically I’m off the hook, except, judging from some lovely comments I’ve received, I think that readers are expecting a weekly blog again. 

In order to meet customer expectations I’ve decided to post an extract from each chapter of the book one week followed by a discussion – the properly scheduled blog – of that chapter topic by me or one of the group the following week.  Constructive comments on the extracts are welcome.

Here is a slightly edited extract from Chapter 1 which introduces the topic.  (You can also see me giving a video talk, Organisation Design 101 in the Quality & Equality Just in Case series).

‘This book is about organisation design, specifically the ‘doing’ of organisation design – the process of intentionally aligning the ‘hard’ and explicit business elements that can be documented through narrative or graphics, for example in business process maps, policy manuals, customer journey maps, system operating guides, organisation charts and governance mechanisms, so that each supports the others.  

Inevitably the ‘soft’ elements that are not easily documented – interactions, feelings, perceptions, cultural attributes come into play.  This interplay between the hard and soft elements of an organisation is another tension that leaders and organisation designers have to bear in mind.

The outcome of the activities of doing the organisation design is the design itself. Many people mistake the organisation design with the organisational structure (aka the organisation chart).  Design is not about the organisation chart. It is much more than that.  [There is an example which illustrates in the chapter]

Although organisational structure is discussed in this book it is not the main focus. Organisational structure – the arrangement of the different departments/units of an organization and the different teams and roles working in each department/unit, in an ordered way – is only one of several elements in an organisation design. 

To explain the differences between design and structure, consider the analogy of a vehicle.  The design of the vehicle is not just the chassis.  Like an organisation, a vehicle comprises multiple interdependent elements designed and aligned to deliver high performance.  For a vehicle, these include the engine, gearbox parts, drive axle, steering and suspension, brakes, oil filter, chassis, battery, alternator, shock absorbers and other parts.   The elements of the vehicle are designed and aligned to work in seamless unison to propel the car forward.  This totality is the design of the vehicle.

Even with advancing technologies a vehicle is not (yet) self-designed and delivered.  It takes people working on the end-to-end design to delivery process. These people are organized i.e. structured – into business units, into teams within the business units and into roles within the teams.    The appropriate structuring of people to deliver a product or service is one element of the entire design.

The analogy of the vehicle to an organisation is not perfect as a vehicle is a mechanical, physical, stable (in a design sense) object.  A car will not gradually morph into tank.  Organisations, on the contrary, are complex entities constantly shifting in response to their context.  The shifts may be intentionally designed, although very often they gradually shift form, without any overall intention. 

Organisation design is about intention to design a better organisation.  There are multiple definitions of the term ‘organisation design’, each giving a slightly different take on what it is:

Practitioner and academic Nicolay Worren in his blog ‘What is organisation design?’ says that OD means more than ‘boxology’, involving ‘the creation of roles, processes and structures to ensure that the organization’s goals can be realized’.  

The Center for Organizational Design says, ‘Organizational design is a step-by-step methodology which identifies dysfunctional aspects of work flow, procedures, structures and systems’.   

McKinsey describes organisation design as ‘going beyond lines and boxes to define decision rights, accountabilities, internal governance, and linkages’. 

The European Organisation Design Forum defines it as a systematic and holistic approach to aligning and fitting together all parts of an organisation to achieve its defined strategic intent.

The definition of organisation design used in this book is ‘intentionally arranging people, work and explicit, documentable organisational elements to effectively and efficiently achieve a business purpose and strategy.’

What all these definitions have in common is they view an organisation as a system, comprising interdependent elements that collectively work to deliver a purpose – a design will not deliver if elements are designed in isolation.

Returning to the vehicle design analogy – in the same way that vehicle designers cannot ignore driver and maintenance engineer skills and the way that they contribute to high performance, so organisation designers cannot ignore the social and behavioural elements i.e. human elements of an organisation – employees, customers, of citizens, and so on – the human factor is an unpredictable, possibly non-designable, variable. However it must be considered as part of the design process.

Organisation design, according to Tom Peters,   is a business process that “is so critical it should be on the agenda of every meeting in every single department”. Curiously, however, executives rarely talk about it as an everyday issue, and even more rarely reflect on the interactions between the organisational elements and complex social dynamics in order to redesign their business for success.

Peter Senge, in his book The Fifth Discipline,  points out why intentional organisation design work is uncommon:

Part of the reason why design is a neglected dimension of leadership: little credit goes to the designer. The functions of design are rarely visible; they take place behind the scenes. The consequences that appear today are the result of work done long in the past, and work today will show its benefits far in the future. Those who aspire to lead out of a desire to control, or gain fame, or simply to be “at the centre of the action” will find little to attract them in the quiet design work of leadership.’

The premise of this book is that organisation design matters and that an organisation has a better chance of success if it is reflectively and continuously designed.’

And now you have a taster of Chapter 1 Introducing Organisation Design.  Next week’s blog will talk about the five organisation design principles discussed in the chapter.

Image: Principles for organisational design