Opportunity in Crisis: Redesigning Organisations

There’s that moment when I realise that, months ago, I committed to presenting at a conference, and now I have to actually present. The day has arrived! So it was last Thursday, when I travelled to The Grove in Hertfordshire, to talk with participants at the Richmond Events conference, on the topic ‘Opportunity in Crisis: Redesigning Organisations’.

Being face to face with people, in a wonderful location that I’d travelled to, was a real novelty after months of only zooming from the same room. Just walking into the conference centre illustrated some aspects of organisation redesign – the room layouts, the instructions and policies, the hand sanitizing stations, the wearing of face masks, the social conventions around hand shaking (not) – what had The Grove management had to redesign to get all participants safely accommodated? 

My session outline ran: 

The challenges presented by the complexity of the overlapping crises of inequality, health, justice, technology, environment, culture and now the coronavirus pandemic, are presenting opportunities to reimagine products and services and recraft the role of organisations in society.

Organisations must become committed to making smarter use of data and technology, engaging the skills and time of employees, customers and citizens, and equipping themselves with the tools to innovate, collaborate and knowledge share. 

This session, through examples in action, encourages participants to reconsider how work is done, the role of workplaces, long-held assumptions, and how they can enable the possibilities and new opportunities for their organisation.

That’s a lot to cover in 50 minutes, and getting what I hoped would be an involving slant on it wasn’t easy. 

However, we started with questions about what constitutes an organisation – where are the boundaries of it that you’d want to draw if you’re trying to respond to these crises? Does it include suppliers, contingent workers, robots, partner organisations, your platform providers?  

Opportunity 1: Get to a common understanding of what constitutes your organisation, and why you are including or excluding aspects of it. This gives you the opportunity to see ‘the organisation’ differently, opening up all sorts of possibilities.

We moved on to looking at the complexity of the overlapping crises, Sadly, the 20 global problems discussed in Jean-Francois Rischard’s 2002 book, High Noon: 20 Global Problems, 20 Years to Solve Them, remain unsolved, despite his assertion then that we had twenty years to solve them. (See image for the list).

In fact, the list has grown longer. We noted that cyber security, space junk, cultural tensions, erosions of democracy and various others, were not on it.  All these crises impact organisations whether people are conscious of it or not. For example, migration rules contribute to labour shortages, trade and competition rules to supply chain issues.  

Opportunity 2: Review the crises list. Take the opportunity to actively work towards designing your organisation in a way that helps solve as many of these as you see impacting your organisation. (Bear in mind they are interdependent).

We moved on to the pandemic considering the statement from McKinsey: ‘The coronavirus pandemic has placed extraordinary demands on leaders in government, business and beyond. The global scale of the outbreak and its sheer unpredictability make it challenging for politicians and leaders to respond resulting in a high degree of uncertainty that gives rise to disorientation, a feeling of lost control, and strong emotional disturbance.’  

Opportunity 3: Reflect on how your organisation has responded to the pandemic. Learn from it what has worked, what you’d like to keep on doing, what didn’t work. Remember there is no going ‘back to normal’. (See also an RSA blog How to create real, lasting change after Covid-19.)

Thinking about where we are now, led to discussion on the requirement for different thinking, fresh and intentional designs, and complete clarity on organisational purpose (the last from multiple stakeholder perspectives).  ‘Different thinking’ is rather difficult in my view. How do you encourage it? Some suggestions I proposed were using Oblique Strategies, 6-thinking hats, working with people from other disciplines, tension and practice cards.

Opportunity 4: The pandemic has shown us how we can rapidly change our thinking. Seize the moment to keep doing this in order to create fresh and intentional designs. (Listen to the Brave New Work podcasts)

The Economist has a list of ten trends to watch for in 2021. Looking for signals, identifying patterns in them, and then making meaning from them, require high level skills in collaboration, sharing knowledge and innovation.   One of the trends is a ‘less footloose world’, and two people working in the airline industry offered insights into the signals they and their colleagues are watching on this and the patterns, and meaning making they’re now beginning to redesign with, in order to reshape their sector.  

Opportunity 5: Become a trend spotter, looking for the strong and weak signals your organisation should be alert to. Use this as an opportunity to redesign for readiness.  NOTE: I talk more on signals in a chapter of my forthcoming book, ‘Designing Organisations: why it matters and ways to do it well’, coming in March 2022.

The penultimate section of the session started to challenge assumptions about work and workplaces, asking the questions:

  • What assumptions am I making about my organisation for example, its purpose, capabilities and commitments?
  • What assumptions am I making about stakeholders, for example, their interests, capabilities and commitments?
  • What am I assuming, based on previous experiences, that may not be true now?
  • What am I assuming about available resources?
  • What limitations am I assuming to be so—and what surprises might I find?
  • What am I assuming about external circumstances?
  • What am I assuming about what’s impossible–or possible?

Opportunity 6: Challenge your assumptions about work and workplace in order to develop new possibilities on these.

Finally, I offered seven actions to help organisation designers take advantage of the opportunities in crisis.  

1.      Think systems

2.      Encourage rebels

3.      Recognise complexity

4.      Understand the cultures

5.      Challenge thinking

6.      Stop swirling

7.      ‘Confront the most brutal facts of your current reality’

 Opportunity 7: Take advantage of the opportunities a crisis offers. I’ll pick up on the seven actions above in next week’s blog. 

How would you create organisation design opportunities from the current crises we face? Let me know.