Organisation design book: the prelims


Continuing the alternate week pattern of posting extracts from the forthcoming third edition of my book “Guide to Organisation Design,” this week’s extract is the start of the prelims, together with some musing on them.

To my joy and some surprise, it looks as if I’m going to get the third edition of the book into the publisher by the contracted submission date – 31 May 2021, which is due to be published March 2022.

The nine chapters are written and this week I’ve been reviewing them, tidying them up, and looking out for obviously dotty or incorrect writing. Fortunately, someone else is going to do the detailed editing: checking the spacing after a full stop, making the headings and sub-headings consistent, confirming that the words in bold (that are explained in the glossary) are actually in the glossary, ensuring references are correctly cited and not a mish-mash of different citation styles, etc.

Now the time has come to write some of what the publisher calls the ‘Prelims’, including acknowledgements, foreword, preface and introduction.  The second edition only has acknowledgements and preface – but this time there’s definitely going to be a foreword, and I’m wondering whether there needs to be an introduction too.

In search of guidance on whether I needed an introduction I found some firm words: ‘the foreword, a preface, and an introduction are three separate and very important elements that appear in the front pages of books, and they each have their own specific functions. The roles of these pieces are often confused.’  

  • A foreword is written by someone other than the author and tells the readers why they should read the book.
  • A preface is written by the author and tells readers how and why the book came into being.
  • An introduction introduces readers to the main topics of the manuscript and prepares readers for what they can expect.

Last week, I invited the review/improvement group, who are supporting me with the book,  to write a para each for the foreword. All five have gamely agreed and we discussed what they would/could say in our bi-weekly meeting.  This ranged from developing an org design Manifesto, to views on what we would like organisations to be and not be e.g. to be open, fair, just, and onwards into what organisations we wouldn’t want to design for and the value of developing design criteria.  We seemed on the verge of heading towards the Mark Twain quote ‘I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead’ and reined ourselves back in.

The upshot of this is that all five will each write around 150 words stating ‘why organisation design matters’ (and, by implication why you should read the book). 

This leaves me with the preface and the decision on whether or not to write an introduction. One of the two may be nixed by the editor who is getting antsy about the book’s word count. However, I’ll give the preface a go and see if I can slip the introduction into it – ignoring the firm words about their different and specific functions.   Here’s my first shot at the preface. 


I promised my family that I would not write another book. They want to see more of me than my back facing the computer.  They had already supported me through my PhD and several books.  When invited to do so, in mid-2019, I refused to write a third edition of this book. Then I changed my mind. 

The trigger for this was the start of the coronavirus pandemic – around February 2020 – which rapidly ramped up into lockdowns, remote working, and an extended and shared vocabulary that was evolving at hyper-speed and quickly becoming a core part of the language.

 Oxford Languages was unable to suggest a single word of the year for 2020, instead issuing a report ‘2020:  words of an unprecedented year’. The words were not just those spawned by the coronavirus pandemic but those new to technology and remote working, the environment, social movements and social media and, politics and economics.

What, became obvious and clear to me was that this unprecedented year was going to have a profound impact on organisations and the way we thought about them, worked in them, and designed them. I thought it would be fascinating to revise the second edition in the light of what I was experiencing, observing and getting to grips with.  

This has proved to be the case. We are thinking differently about organisations and the way we work in them and it has been a fascinating journey of reflection, discussion, learning, challenge, signal detection, pattern recognition and meaning-making. 

This third edition is has some very different content from the second edition, including a new chapter on continuous design. Almost new chapters are those on leaders and design, and designing culture. And there are major revisions of all the other chapters. Throughout, the examples and cases are new and the impact of the pandemic is threaded through.

However, writing this third edition is not simply a swift reaction to an unprecedented year. It draws on both my three-plus decades in the field of organisation design and the things I’ve been talking about and urging for over the past 7 years. 

The coronavirus pandemic has served to throw into sharp relief my strongly held beliefs that organisations that are continuously designed to be human centred, good places to work, well-led by ethical and curious leaders who are purpose and outcomes driven, will be better able to weather the changing contexts than organisations that focus on hierarchies, structure, procedures, targets and objectives.

The coming years will see the ripple effects of the pandemic, and I am reminded now of fiction writer, Kim Stanley Robinson’s quote, ‘We have come a long way. We have a long way to go. In between we are somewhere.’  We are at the somewhere between traditional, hierarchical command and control organisations and organisational forms that we have not yet seen come into the mainstream. 

If organisations are designed to become flatter, foster respect and autonomy, promote equal opportunity, equal treatment and equal outcomes and if, at the same time, organisational leaders and other stakeholders design with the recognition of our interdependence, fragility and vulnerability, and of the impact of our current lifestyles on our environment then the learning from the pandemic will show it is being applied.  

In writing this third edition I am hoping that leaders and managers, in their capacity of organisation designers (which they are whether they recognise it or not) will find value in learning more about their role in designing organisations and putting that learning into practice. This book gives them the information, methods, examples, case studies and tools that will help them do so.