Forthcoming OD app

From Quality & Equality website

Mee-Yan Cheung Judge, Quality and Equality, is developing an organisation development app.  She has asked me to contribute a section on organisation design, saying ‘the purpose of what you write is to help users to get to understand what your specialism is, what are the required competences needed if they want to be like you – a specialist in Org Design, and tips on how they can pursue their mastery in this area.  As number of other contributors are doing similarly for their specialism and for app design purpose, we need the same structure for each piece:

 Part 1    – share a short personal journey how you get to have mastery in this area (what evoked your interest, why org design. etc)

Part 2 – what is org design, definition and what does this specialism do., a bit of the field history if there is any?

Part 3 – What are the required competences any org design specialist should have eventually?

Part 4 – what does one need to do to develop themselves + few resources if they want to know more?

I said to other contributors that this is NOT an academic article, this should be a practical, accessible guide to people who want to be organisation design specialists.   A simplified road map to help them know enough to begin their route and then know how to navigate to achieve their specialism.’

That’s a tall order in a short number of words (approx 1900) but I said I’d give it a go.   So, I’ll try out a slightly shorter version here to get feedback from you before I send on to Mee-Yan (with any of your thoughts included).

Part 1: My journey into organisation design accelerated when I worked for British Airways, (1996 – 2001) as an internal consultant.  One of my colleagues there was interested in organisation design and ran a couple of programmes for the consulting teams. 

I’d been heading into the design direction without fully realising it for probably the 15 years before.  My first career was in adult education and from there I moved into managing learning and development functions, but came to the conclusion (maybe contentious?!) that learning and development on its own does not necessarily lead to organisational change, although it may be of great benefit to the individual, or groups of individuals (as in team development).  

You’ve probably all experienced leaving a course on a high with all sorts of intentions of doing things differently back in the workplace, only to be stymied by systems, structures, policies, controls, and all the stuff that makes organisation design.  (Sometimes described as the formal elements, with learning/development/culture/behaviours as the informal elements).   

Thinking that organisations change only when there is a combination of intentional shaping of both the formal and informal elements of them, I got interested in systems and did a couple of Open University courses in systems approaches.  One I recommend now is the Post Graduate Diploma in Systems Thinking in Practice.

Part 2:  Thus, systems were in my interests, but a process and framework for applying systems change into the design work wasn’t there until the British Airways courses.  Then it was.   

Since leaving BA, I’ve taken many other learning paths around organisation design. You can read more about what I’ve found works for in my blog on the topic here.

I now define organisation design as ‘intentionally arranging people, work and formal organisational elements to effectively and efficiently achieve a business purpose and strategy.’ There are countless other definitions of organisation design.  But that’s the one that seems most appropriate for the analogies and methods that I use.

Accepting that organisations are systems and that systems thinking helps in design work enables designers ‘to step back from the system they are in, think about what they are trying to achieve in relation to the bigger picture, and collaborate with a broad range of stakeholders … encouraging them to assess and question the existing system – the boundaries, perspectives and relationships that could be relevant to addressing their design issues and opportunities.[1]   

Note that systems thinking includes thinking about the culture, behaviours and informal elements and, more specifically, how the formal elements are instrumental in shaping these (and vice versa).  It is not possible to do organisation design work without doing organisation development work.  Although it is possible to do organisation development work without doing organisation design work – but it may not be as effective as hoped.   See my blog on the relationship between organisation design, organisation development and change management here .

The field history of organisation design is problematic and contested partly because it depends on what we mean by organisation design.  Another of my blogs discusses this question.  Suffice it to say that we are moving from descriptors of organisations as mechanical systems and pyramid hierarchies (the language of pulling levers, triggers, chains of command) that can be manipulated,  towards descriptors of organisations as networks, collaborations, and complex adaptive systems that ‘emerge’ and can only, perhaps, be shaped. 

Part 3:  Mee-Yan describes competences as ‘the characteristics that define successful per­formance by a professional practitioner. It delin­eates who practitioners need to be, what they need to know, and what they must be capable of doing. It is a detailed description of an ideal performer.’    The Organisation Design Community certifies org design practitioners on evidence of practical experience.  It does not list required competences.  

The UK’s CIPD has an HR Profession Map with one of the specialisms being Organisation Development and Design.   This is at four levels and, rather than competences, states ‘what you’ll understand’ by category at each of the levels.  For example, at the Associate level, one thing you’ll understand is the ‘Macro trends that impact the design of organisations (eg sustainability, geopolitical, demographic, technology)’.

I don’t know if you can get to a ‘detailed description of an ideal organisation design performer’, as the work requires different competences in different contexts and situations.  My view is that critical thinking, and curiosity are required.  I read about the necessary attributes for a diplomat – ‘objectivity and scepticism’ and I thought they were apt for organisation designers. (Maybe org designers need similar skils to diplomats?)   

Another attribute organisation designers need is the ability to wield credible influence – all too frequently internal organisation designers are in a more junior position than people they are aiming to advise and their skills, knowledge and experience are side-lined.  External organisation design consultants typically do have credibility and influence but are not familiar enough with the organisational context to execute/implement the design.  More successful design work blends external and internal expertise.  Again, a couple of my blogs talk more on this.

So, there’s a sketch of three of the parts Mee-Yan is interested in for her app.  Any comments on this, let me know.

[1] How systems thinking enhances systems leadership, Catherine Hobbs and Gerald Midgley, Centre for Systems Studies, University of Hull,