Organisation design:  Odile the organisation designer

Intersection Group, a non-profit, aims to make design approaches to creating better enterprises much easier to adopt than currently, and create tools that drive adoption across a range of disciplines (Organisation Designers, Business Architects, Service Designers etc).

A short while ago they emailed me asking for contributions to the Intersection Toolkit they intend to publish towards the end of this year as a free Open Source product.  I offered to support. 

Their idea is to incorporate design approaches and tools embedded in the stories of a fictional person e.g. Severin the Service Designer who I mentioned last week, making the gap for the somewhat siloed disciplines easier to cross and thus encourage a more holistic than discipline-based approach to design.

Last week I had a second conversation about my contribution to the toolkit, the story of Odile the Organisation Designer.   The question that started to run through my mind was: ‘Is Odile a persona or a character? And does it matter?’

Development of personas is a common in agile practice and design thinking.  Briefly, it’s a method of avoiding building/creating/designing something nobody wants.  It works by starting with somebody in mind as the intended user of the product/service. In the design world, that “somebody” is a ‘persona’. Coursera has a module (module 2 of the course, Agile Meets Design Thinking) on developing personas, and you can get the template it mentions, in the module’s intro video, for developing personas here.   (NOTE: this para is an adaptation of the materials about the course).

Fictional characters are developed in several different ways.  The Open University Programme (free) ‘Start writing fiction: characters and stories’ explores 4 ways of finding and developing fictional characters in week 5 of the course. 

  1. You can completely make them up (the ideal method).
  2. The autobiographical method, it is through your own experience that you grasp what it is to be a person.
  3. The biographical method, you use people you have observed (or researched) as the starting points for your fictional character.
  4. The fourth way to create fictional characters is the mixed method. Writers frequently combine the biographical and the ideal methods.

With the question in my mind (is Odile a persona or a character?), I just began writing.  It’s turning out that she is both, and it does matter.   According to my brief, I have to get tell a story that follows the story arc (exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution) and also get in learning points, approaches and tools, for users in the various design fields, that help bridge the gaps between them and head them towards more collaborative design.   So, Odile’s story is a fictional character story (using the mixed method) and also the persona of an organisation designer (i.e. a user of the Intersection Toolkit).

I’ve got as far as the exposition of the Odile story, with a start of the rising action!  (Ed: when will you finish this?).  Here it is:  

Odile the organisation designer

My experience and role (exposition)

I have a background in social anthropology. Previously I worked for both Google and Intel helping them understand how people interact with technology.   

Doing my work, over time, I realised that organisational power structures, organisational structures, and control systems (as well at other systems) are strongly instrumental in shaping behaviours, attitudes and ways of doing work. 

This sparked my interest in the way organisations are ‘designed’ – the formal aspects of them that can be codified for example business processes, policies, structures (as they are represented on an organisation chart), job roles, and so on.

To learn more about designing I took a short course at Insead, Design Thinking and Creativity for Business, where I learned, among other things, a methodology to put design thinking into actions.

The programme involved an action learning project.  My action learning set worked on Amtrak’s  (a US railway company) decision to invest in a new fleet of 83 multi-powered modern trains.  The project involved assessing Amtrak’s current design, and proposing where to re-design in response to the fleet-purchase decision.

I’ve always been a railway fan, traveling Europe on a Eurail Pass, over several long vacations.  So, when post-course, the opportunity came my way to join Intersection Railways in the newly created role of Organisation Design Lead, I jumped at the chance.  I was keen to help a progressive railway in its drive to compete with budget airlines, specifically catering to passengers concerned about flygskam (flight shame), or the carbon footprint of short flights, by providing an affordable and comparatively ‘greener’ transport option.  

In my new role, reporting to the Group HR Director, Farzin Ahmadi, I am responsible for designing Intersection Railways in a consistent, efficient and strategically relevant manner.  This includes:

• Translation of strategy into organisation structures and governance models – more specifically, I am responsible for the diagnosis design, delivery and deployment of organisation design initiatives in the organisation.

• Identification of linkages from organisation design initiatives to leadership, culture and learning and connecting and co-creating solutions with other subject matter experts in Learning and Organisational Development and HR.

• The development and deployment of an organisation design framework to HRBPs and leaders, including the development of learning material and facilitation of training sessions.

Chapter 1 (Rising action, part 1)

A couple of weeks into my new role, having done some exploratory work, I found that Intersection Railways was re-introducing sleeper trains with a network of planned routes that would link up cities including Prague, Berlin, Amsterdam and more in 2022.  I’d had several fruitful and energising conversations with the Enterprise Architects, the Service Designers, the Product Owners,  (located in different business units) and they supported my thinking that we needed a multi-disciplinary design team, but warned that senior leaders were often unwilling to support cross business unit collaboration, and keener to protect their interests in order to meet their objectives and performance targets which tended to mitigate against collaboration.

Following various other conversations, I went to see Farzin to discuss the scope and accountability of my role.  Briefly, I wanted to cover:

  • The interdependencies with other people who felt they held the organisation design ring e.g. Service Designers and Enterprise Architects. I felt that there was a lot of overlap of roles and a confusion of who was accountable for what.
  • The location of my role in the organisation.  I don’t feel that being located in the HR function, enables me to play a significant role in supporting Intersection’s overall vision and strategy, in a way that I’d been led to believe it would.
  • The governance structures for organisation design work.  I’d found that Ernestine, an Enterprise Architect had initiated a board for governing cross-organisation IT and change activities.  My impression was that this would become just another bureaucratic talking shop with little power to steer or drive design work.

I left the meeting surprised and pleased at Farzin’s take on the points raised. Although he suggested not to worry about the location of my role at this point, he was curious about my thinking and encouraged me to develop a strategy to create a ‘design movement’ in Intersection Railways, that would do two things:

  • Informally unite the various disciplines involved in change and design work with an intent to minimising senior leaders/executives’ aversion to collaboration – via showing the value of it.
  • With the ‘movement’ develop a proposed governance method that enabled continuous design oversight and design efficiency/effectiveness of the organisation without heavy handed ‘control’.  We discussed an evidence based, real-time, data driven model as a possibility which raised some alarm bells for me as a strong focus on data might lose the human/culture dimension.  (See Mr Gee’s video poem Data People)

This was both a welcome and challenging outcome for me, but I thought that the sleeper train project could provide a test bed for developing the strategy.  I knew that work was going on to develop an app related to it, and this had run into some problems.  Drawing on my social anthropology skills and experiences I set off to use the sleeper train introduction to spark an organisation design movement. 


What happens next? What are the learning points and possible tools so far?  Let me know