Introducing organisation design – part 2

Introducing organisation design sounds more straightforward than it is in practice.  Each time I’m asked to do something on introducing organisation design I ask myself what exactly it is that I am introducing. 

‘Organisation design’ is both a process – the process of designing an organisation, and an outcome.  Once the process is complete you have a designed organisation.  Except, more often than not, you don’t. 

Organisation designing is not like product designing.  You don’t end up with a definable ‘thing’ – a hairdryer or a notebook or a software module.     Organisations are not very definable, and certainly not in the ‘thing’ sense.  Common themes about what an organisation are include groups of people, acting together, in pursuit of common goals or objectives.

But this isn’t very satisfactory.  I won’t go into why this is the case, as Paul Griseri has covered it brilliantly in Chapter 1 of his (2013) book, An introduction to the philosophy of management

He opens the chapter asking ‘what exactly is an organisation? We can distinguish the two following senses of this question:  What is it for something in general to be an organisation?  How can we decide whether a specific ‘thing’ is an organisation or not?’  After 21 very readable pages he concludes without defining an organisation and without being able to confirm that organisations exist.  You can read the whole chapter here .

On the one hand, I take comfort from this as it illustrates the kind of conundrums I come up against when I think about introducing organisation design.  On the other hand – having been told many times in my career that I am ‘too academic’ – I take the view that I’ll raise challenging questions as and when and aim to keep myself in a position of equilibrium on the Perceived Weirdness Index. (I wrote about this Index a few years ago).

Thus, I plunge into Chapter 1: Introducing Organisation Design, of the book I’m writing, boldly side-stepping the indefinability of ‘organisation’ and whether or not organisations exist and start from the assumption that organisations are somehow ‘there’ (or ‘here’) evidenced by people getting pay-cheques and putting the name and logo of the organisation they get them from on their Linked In page.  And further assuming on this basis that organisations can be intentionally designed, at least in some aspects. 

As an aside, I was never able to explain to my mother’s satisfaction what organisation design is.  When I told her I had been asked to write another book on organisation design her immediate response was, ‘I don’t know how anyone can write one book on organisation design, let alone two.’  However, she proudly displayed all my writing on her bookshelf. 

What I learned from my mother’s response was to use familiar analogies and examples to illustrate points and stick to plain language.   I’m going to carefully check the book draft against George Orwell’s five rules of writing.

In introducing organisation design I suggest that the work of organisation designing should be effective, continuous and reflective.  To help make sure it is, I propose five principles to bear in mind when designing:

  1. Organisation design is driven by the business purpose and strategy, the operating model and the operating context
  2. Organisation design requires systems thinking: about the many elements of the organisation and the connections between them
  3. Organisation design takes strong, thoughtfully used, future-oriented mindsets and methods.
  4. The organisation design process involves social interactions and conversations as much as formal planning.
  5. Organisation design is a fundamental continuing business process, not a one-off repair job.

The set is not empirically researched, rather it is born out of the practitioner experience of the group working with me on the book (ed – is the group an organisation?) and their responses to the set in the second edition of the book which had six principles. 

We spent time discussing and refining that second edition set into the set of five above.  There are not major differences i.e. there are no different principles – the changes are of focus and some of the wording. 

On the first principle we all had different views on whether organisational members need a shared purpose or not.     Note that the concepts of shared purpose(s) are debated in Griseri’s chapter mentioned earlier. It could be fun to host a debate on ‘What’s the value of having a shared organisational purpose?’ – or similar title and hear all sides.

On the second principle, we abandoned the word ‘holistic’ which was originally in principle 2 as it is hard to be clear, as one of the group I’m working with, said, ‘on what holistic thinking actually is, because we all generally think about individual items and connections between them in turn, not about all of them simultaneously.’  Instead, we maintained the thread of systems thinking which is carried throughout the book. 

The third principle we are still debating!  And are thinking of offering an alternative, but similar, one ‘Organisation design takes intentionality, well-chosen methods, and thinking that is rigorous, open and forward-looking’.   We were challenged by a group member who asked: ‘Would principle 3 be the same if it said “OD requires future-oriented methods”.  Currently, it includes a few smuggling words: strong, thoughtfully used, mindsets – in each case, why? What would be wrong with a weak, thoughtless, mindless approach, as long as it were future oriented (!) ?’  What’s your view of principle 3?

Principle four has also been a focus of attention. We have agreed that we need to enable co-creation and collaboration – both in the OD process itself and in the capabilities of the resulting organisation.  But we haven’t specified those two words in order to allow for other aspects of ‘social interactions and conversations’.   Does the principle, as written, adequately include co-creation and collaboration?

This discussion took me into thinking more about designing organisations that are inherently collaborative.  Do they have particular design characteristics?  There’s a research article by Paul Adler and Charles Heckscher exploring this topic that I found helpful – Collaboration as an Organization Design for Shared Purpose.  The article discusses ‘the organizational form that could create and sustain a widely shared commitment to the organization’s ultimate purpose in large, complex, business enterprises facing dynamic environments’ the form they come up with is the ‘collaborative form’.

Adler and Heckscher offer four designable attributes for collaboration in support of shared purpose:  ethic of contribution, interactive process management, participative centralization, T-shaped skills.  On the T-shaped skills the authors say ‘the collaborative organization deliberately plans members’ skill development to support their ability to contribute to the organization’s ultimate purposes’, which runs counter to some arguments that people are in charge of their own career and skills development.     

They warn that ‘the collaborative organization is costly to create and difficult to maintain. It depends on reliable mechanisms for establishing and updating reputations; but we know that these mechanisms are vulnerable to opportunistic manipulation. The high level of participation in collaborative organizations requires considerable meeting time; but such meetings are costly and burdensome. The collaborative form requires openness to diversity, difference, and disagreement; but it offers little assurance these will not explode the collectivity or seal the organization off from the outside world as a closed sect.’ 

We do tend to toss around the word ‘collaboration’ or the phrase ‘a culture of collaboration’ and I wonder if we have thought carefully enough about what this means in practice. 

The fifth principle  emerged unscathed from our discussion of it and remains pretty much identical to the second edition version. 

In conclusion, the way I have used the principles in the past and the way I will continue, I think, to use them is as thought provokers to encourage reflection and intentionality about designing.  

What’s your view of the five principles?  How would you use them?  Let me know. 

Image:  Design management  Author/Copyright holder: Wiki4des. Copyright terms and licence: CC BY-SA 3.0