Organisation design systems models

A couple of weeks ago I said I’d alternate an extract a chapter of the coming third edition of one of my books with a reflective blog on that chapter.  This week is an extract on Models from Chapter 2, followed next week by some reflections related to that chapter.


To support the application of systems thinking and systems approaches, organisation designers use ‘systems models’.  These are simple visual representations of an organisation’s elements and the links between them.  

There is sometimes a difficulty in explaining what a systems model is and what it is for.  It becomes clearer by thinking of an organisation as analogous to a living human being.  A human being constitutes 

  • systems –  e.g. the circulatory and nervous systems (note that a ‘system’ is both the whole system, in this case the human body, and sub-systems within it)
  • processes –  e.g. the digestive processes
  • organs – e.g. heart, brain, kidneys, liver and lungs
  • chemical elements – e.g. oxygen, hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen
  • tissues – e.g. muscle tissues, connective tissues

When the human is healthy these systems, processes, etc. work in harmony enabling interaction with their environment.

To explain these body constituents and their inter-relationships, medical educators make use of anatomical models.  Different anatomical models illustrate different constituents of the human body.  For example, Mixed Dimensions’ intricate models ‘show the minute details of the human body’s muscles, bones, and skin’ while SynDavers’ model includes bones, joints, muscles, organs and tendons, major nervous system and vascular components. Similarly, systems models differ in which organisational elements they feature.

Organisational systems models are used similarly to anatomical models.  They enable a step back from the day-to-day organisation – aiming to foster an impartial objectivity, that facilitates constructive discussion on the organisational elements and their relationships to:

  • the external ecosystem and environment (market)
  • the way teams, roles and tasks are organised (organisation)
  • the way business processes are run and the way value is delivered (operations)
  • the way the elements are interdependent

As with anatomical models, there are several different organisational systems models in common use in organisational design work.  Choosing one that is appropriate for a specific organisation’s design intent involves consideration of the strategy, the operating model and the problem or opportunity a new design is intended to solve. 

In cases where none of the off-the-shelf models seem appropriate, a bespoke model can be developed, although this takes time and energy that may be better spent on adapting one of the existing models to fit an organisation’s particular context.

Table 2.1(Note: in the book) compares the five systems models organisation designers most commonly use, noting the elements referenced in each model and some strengths and limitations of each. (Note: these are: McKinsey 7-S, Galbraith’s Star Model, Weisbord’s 6-box model, Nadler and Tushman congruence model, Burke-Litwin model).  This is not an exhaustive list.  There are other models in use some from the related fields of business architecture and enterprise design – for example, the Business Architecture Guild model, the Zachman framework and the Viable System Model. 

Comparing the models helps leaders and designers decide which one is best for use in a specific organisation in a specific context. The choice of model depends on several factors, including:

  • Whether there is a preference for model developed and tested from theory or a model developed and tested from practice (or both). Warner Burke in a paper discussing this point notes that, ‘from the perspective of both research about organisations and consultation to organisational clients, we have experienced some frustration about most, if not all, current organisational models that do little more than describe or depict. A case in point is the 7S model developed by Pascale and Athos (1981) and further honed by Peters and Waterman (1982).’[5] i.e. the models are not derived from empirical research or based in sound theory, but are practitioner or consultant developed, and gain credibility and use through association with a brand.
  • Whether there is a known organisational priority – for example if there is a general feeling that leaders do not give enough strategic direction and guidance, then a model with ‘leadership’ as an element might be chosen as this will drive the need to make an element explicit in the model
  • Whether the outside environment is important – some models do not show external context
  • Whether it can be easily and simply adapted if appropriate.

Further factors for model choice are suggested by researchers Falletta and Combs[6]

  • Whether it meets the organization’s current problem or need;
  • Whether leaders are comfortable with it;
  • Whether it fits the organization’s culture;
  • Whether it is sufficiently comprehensive to capture all of the factors and variables of interest without overwhelming or confusing key stakeholders in the organization.

The models shown Table 2.1 are still in use after 6 decades from first development, giving rise to debate on how appropriate they are for this decade when speed of adaptation to rapidly changing contexts is that much more than in the relative stability of the 1960 and 1970s contexts.  A current major challenge for organisation designers is dealing with so many different and changing types of businesses.  The ’traditional’ organisation and the ’new/evolving’ organisation exist side-by-side and sometimes within the same organisation. This suggests that adherence to one model throughout an organisation may not be appropriate if business units have different operating models, and different products and services.  

Most models force the clear declaration of the organisation’s function. The choice of model to develop the design is more a question of fit. But to help choose the model for the specific organisation, ask diagnostic questions such as:

  • Does the model package the organisational elements in a way that stakeholders will recognise (are there enough, are they ones that are important in the organisation)?
  • How will stakeholders react to the presented model (is it jargon-free, and simple to understand and communicate)?
  • Will the model find favour across the organisation or will it compete with other organisation design models?
  • Does the model harbour implicit assumptions that might help or hinder design work? For example, does it include or exclude factors such as local culture (both national and organisational) and human factors (such as personalities), or does it suggest ways that elements may relate to each other?
  • How adaptable is the model to the specific context and circumstances in which it will be used? Does it enable any new perspectives or innovative thinking? Is it scalable to small work-unit design and whole organisation design?
  • Does the model work with other models in use in the organisation (for example, change management or project management models)?
  • Are the costs to adopt the model acceptable (for example, training, communication and obtaining buy-in)?
  • Does the model allow for new and unconventional organisation design that will help drive the business strategy?
  • Does the model have a sponsor or champion who will help communicate it appropriately?
  • Does the model allow for transformational design as well as transactional design? (Transformational means a design developed in response to environmental forces either internal or external to the organisation – for example, creation or closure of a business unit or a merger – that affects the mission, strategy and culture. Transactional means changes related to the business or work-unit structures, systems, processes, and so on that might be needed to carry out the mission and strategy but do not change them.)’

[5] W W Burke & G H Litwin. (1992). A Causal Model of Organizational Performance and Change. Journal of Management. Vol 18. No 3 (1992) p 529

[6] Falletta, Salvatore. (2018). The Organizational Intelligence Model in Context, OD Practitioner Vol 50 No1