Complexity and organisational processes

Do you have a criteria or approach for assessing/measuring the complexity of business functions? This question came to me from a consultant redesigning a business unit.  The proposed new design increases the number of functions reporting into the current Director.   He wondered if the size of the unit would be too much for him.   The consultant suggested that the answer depends on the complexity‎ of the functions reporting in to the Director and now needs to find a way to identify and test functional complexity.

McKinsey tells us that ‘Companies must get three things right to manage complexity for value: organizational design, coordinating processes and systems, and capability building.’

In a later article they point out that ‘When pressed, many leaders cite the institutional manifestations of complexity they personally experience: the number of countries the company operates in, for instance, or the number of brands or people they manage. By contrast, relatively few executives consider the forms of individual complexity that the vast majority of their employees face—for example poor processes, confusing role definitions, or unclear accountabilities.’

Accepting that distinction, the number of different functions that a single Director can manage depends on both factors.  The institutional complexity relates to the operating environment.  A Deloitte paper quotes the example of regulators, ‘whose job has always been to protect the public from danger, exploitation, or insufficient competition in reasonably stable markets, now face another danger: that their own application of old rules to new realities might suppress innovations of tremendous potential value to the public.’

The article lists four ‘new realities’:

  • Change comes faster – the authors point out that ‘while innovation has always challenged regulatory authorities, its influence on society has historically spread more gradually, giving regulators more time to learn and adapt. Today, startups are more quickly reaching significant scale and impact, in some cases serving millions of customers and employing thousands of people’
  • Innovators find back doors – think how Uber challenged the regulation of taxi firms, and Air BnB of the hotel industry.
  • Ecosystems are full of unlike players – ‘once-clear industries dissolve into complex ecosystems full of unfamiliar entities and innovative offerings’.
  • Innovations cross lines of jurisdiction – for example people interested in investing their pension in cryptocurrencies cross more than one regulatory framework.

The individual complexity that employees face is commonplace in most organisations.  Julian Birkinshaw in his TEDx talk ‘The Cost of Complexity’ gives vivid examples of individual complexity at work:  workarounds, things falling into ‘a bit of a black hole’ where no one can retrieve them, duplication of activity, and poor customer service.  He talks about the costs of this form of complexity, advocating instead ‘organising based on adhocracy not bureaucracy’.

There is an example of this adhocracy over bureaucracy thinking applied to traffic flow.  Hans Monderman’s ‘designs emphasized human interaction over mechanical traffic devices. By taking away conventional regulatory traffic controls, he proved that human interaction and caution would naturally yield a safer, more pleasant environment for motorists, pedestrians and cyclists.’

The information above is useful in indicating that the Director needs to know:

  • The level of institutional complexity, and whether it is the same for each business unit
  • The types of individual complexity employees and customers experience in the organisation (and the costs of this)
  • The possible methods of addressing the two types of complexity to make the Director’s task manageable in the absence of being able to reallocate some of the management to another Director – for example, could the number of rules and policies be reduced?

Knowing the level of institutional complexity means keeping alert to the constantly changing external environment, perhaps introducing a horizon scanning function, keeping a close eye on competitors, looking for patterns in large data sets, and so on.

Knowing the level of individual complexity is usefully done by examining organisational processes.  As David Garvin says, in an excellent article, ‘In the broadest sense, they [processes] can be defined as collections of tasks and activities that together — and only together — transform inputs into outputs. Within organizations, these inputs and outputs can be as varied as materials, information, and people.’  He tells us that ‘a process perspective gives the needed integration, because it emphasizes the ‘links among activities, showing that seemingly unrelated tasks — a telephone call, a brief hallway conversation, or an unscheduled meeting — are often part of a single, unfolding sequence’.  Additionally, a process perspective can link the realities of work practice ‘explicitly to the firm’s overall functioning’.

He describes organisational processes in three categories:  work processes (subdivided into operational and administrative), behavioural (he discusses decision-making, communication and organizational learning), and change.  Processes operate at the institutional and individual level, emphasizing, ‘the links among activities, showing that seemingly unrelated tasks — a telephone call, a brief hallway conversation, or an unscheduled meeting — are often part of a single, unfolding sequence.’

Organisation designers take note of the point that there are ‘intimate connections among the different types of processes’ and it is futile to analyse them in isolation.  As he says, ‘It is extraordinarily difficult – and, at times, impossible – to understand or alter a single process without first taking account of others on which it depends.   Thus, in Garvin’s view, accountability must shift ‘to those with wide enough spans of control to oversee entire processes’.

Following the discussion of organisational processes, Garvin talks of managerial processes:  direction setting, negotiation and selling, monitoring and control.   He then presents a ‘Framework for Action’ that I haven’t yet used but intend to try.  It looks to be a good starting point for making some judgements on whether the organisational and managerial processes are complex – in terms of work flow, behavioural interactions and degree of change – in the context of what is known about the institutional complexity.

How would you assess the degree of complexity in a business function and what is manageable for one Director?  Let me know.

Image:  Data complexity

Internal and external OD & D consulting

A friend has just asked me what she can expect moving from being an internal to being an external consultant in the field of organisation development and design (OD & D) and how she should prepare herself for the move.

It’s too easy to look at two-column tables that highlight the differences.  I have one from Gary McLean’s book Organization Development: Principles, Processes, Performance . This tells me, for example that internal consultants ‘know the organisational culture better than an external can ever know it’ while external consultants ‘do not have pre-knowledge of the organisational culture, so do not enter the process with any preconceived notions.’   And, ‘[Internal consultants] have relationships established that can get cooperation more quickly’, while external consultants are ‘Often given more respect by insiders because they are not known except by reputation’.  You can see another table adapted from Field Guide to Consulting and Organizational Development here.

At first glance these differentiations look ok but take a more critical look and you’ll see several assumptions around the statements. For example, can we safely assume that external consultants do not come to an organisation with preconceived notions?

Additionally, the lists appear binary – know the culture/don’t know the culture.  In terms of giving support to someone making the transition from internal to external consulting, the statements are not that useful. They are superficial observations not actionable insights that would help my friend get to grips with a different take on what is often perceived to be a similar role.  Consultancy.UK, for example, states, ‘An internal consultant is, at first glance, just like an external consultant: a professional that is hired to solve an organisational problem and implement the solutions in order to improve the performance of an organisation.’

More importantly these types of comparisons don’t address how:

  1. Theories and approaches to OD & D are evolving
  2. Changes are being made to way the OD & D is being ‘done’ in organisations (assuming it is ‘do-able’ see last week’s blog)
  3. The evolution of theories of OD & D and the way it is done has a consequential impact on the role of internal and external OD & D consultants and the relationships and interdependencies they are part of

O & D is about changing aspects or the whole organisation.  As Sturdy and Wylie find ‘change has become normalised or business as usual in many contexts’ and, to paraphrase, that rationalist theories that suggest that ‘change’ is a ‘thing’ amenable to linear, planned and structured approaches, is shifting towards theories that change is complex, ‘fragmented and incoherent’.

This evolution is leading to thinking that OD & D is less of specialist/expert capability and more of a generic leadership/management capability,  or even a whole organisation one which is ‘dispersed and decentred’ in a number of ways including through various individuals, formal teams and informal groups.

If OD & D consultants are to migrate from structured approaches e.g. Appreciative Inquiry’s four step model of discovery, dream, design, destiny/deliver, and if OD & D is becoming accepted as both a management capability and an organisational capability then what does that mean for the expert OD & D consultant?

It means thinking about a different ‘offer’.  This is a challenge to management consultancy in general, as managers become less commanders, and more consultants themselves.  McKinsey, for example, is one consulting company changing its offer.  It ‘is targeting medium-sized companies, which would not have been able to afford its fees, by offering shorter projects with smaller “startup-sized” teams. As it chases growth, the firm is also doing things it used to eschew as being insufficiently glamorous. In 2010 it moved into business restructuring and it has also set up a global strategy “implementation” practice. That is a far cry from the days when its consultants stuck mainly to blue-sky thoughts in their ivory towers.’

This shifting landscape me wondering what I can tell my friend to expect as she moves from internal to external OD & D consulting.   Some thoughts:

  • On the whole context shift that I outlined above she can expect to have to keep a close watch on organisations she is interested in a see how their approach to hiring and using external consultants is changing, although for this she’d have to have access to insider knowledge.
  • She can expect to have to keep her own skills honed as the theories and practices of OD & D change.  I wrote on this topic in 2014 and re-reading the piece I can see an update is necessary as skills required have moved on since then.
  • As OD & D becomes a capability reliant less on individual expertise and more on collective capability she can expect to act more as a coach, mentor and support to managers (assuming her knowledge is current or even in the vanguard of thinking).
  • In terms of her own job satisfaction she can expect to feel a range of emotions that are different from those she might have felt as an internal consultant.  There’s the financial insecurity, the worry about business development, and the isolation if you go-it-alone.  These types of downsides are balanced against the autonomy to accept or reject work, the ability to develop skills and experience by working with a variety of organisations, and the opportunity to meet and build relationships with more people than you typically meet as an internal consultant.

What do you think she can expect as she moves from an internal to an external OD & D consulting role?  Let me know.

Image:  Henry Moore, Upright Internal External Form


Were you as amazed and thrilled by Elon Musk and team’s feat in launching Falcon Heavy + roadster with Starman, on February 6 as I was?   My delight at a massive bet that paid off, couldn’t match Musk’s own.  “Holy flying f—,” Musk says in the video, seconds after the Falcon Heavy pushed off the launch pad. “That thing took off.”   Watching the rocket go skyward, Musk exclaimed, “That is unreal.”

At a press conference later that day he told reporters, “Crazy things can come true. I didn’t really think this would work — when I see the rocket lift up, I see a thousand things that could not work, and it’s amazing when they do.”

I can’t claim that an organization design/transformation project could generate anything like the same reaction as the crowds at the launch site at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida.  If only they did.  We don’t celebrate success of a project in much of a way.  Maybe we should.  As Elon Musk said “I’ve seen rockets blow up so many different ways, so it’s a big relief for when it actually works.”

What I loved about the Falcon Heavy is the sense of the absurd harboured within immense endeavour.  Musk’s roadster car with Starman figure is the payload, “It’s just literally a normal car in space — I kind of like the absurdity of that,” Musk said. “It’s kind of silly and fun, but I think that silly, fun things are important … I think the imagery of it is something that’s going to get people excited around the world, and it’s still tripping me out.’

I don’t see much silliness and fun in leaders of organisation transformation. And it’s a pity we don’t encourage it, because, as Musk says – that’s what’s going to get people excited. (Or not)

In the same week as the Falcon Heavy take-off, I was in a programme planning meeting (on organisation transformation), where the question of ‘do-ability’ of what we’d designed and planned came up.  It’s not in the same league as off to orbit Mars but it’s important in our micro universe.

Asking if something’s do-able is a good question.  What are the conditions necessary for making an aspiration or a plan do-able?  Are there common factors of ‘do-ability’ that we should look out for?  Learning from Musk’s and the Starman venture we can identify:

  1. A leader capable of putting together a truly expert team of people dedicated to achieving the common mission even if it looks like a big risk at the outset. Musk points out that ‘there’s a tremendous bias against taking risks. Everyone is trying to optimize their ass-covering.’
  2. Having enough cash and other resources available to fund the project from initiation to outcome (and onwards)
  3. Doing a lot of planning and accepting you can’t plan for everything. “We’ve done all the (computer) modeling we could think of,” he said. “We’ve asked … third parties to double check the calculations, make sure we haven’t made any mistakes. So, we’re not aware of any issues, nobody has been able to point out any fundamental issues. In theory it should work. But where theory and reality collide, reality wins.”
  4. Showing a reasonable sense that things might not work out but that whatever the outcome there are great learning opportunities. “It would be a really huge downer if it blows up. But hopefully, if something goes wrong, it goes wrong far into the mission so we at least learn as much as possible along the way,” said Musk at Kennedy Space Center on the eve of the flight
  5. Being willing to say clearly that this is not going to be right first time. Musk pointed out, “This is a test mission. We don’t want to set expectations of perfection by any means.’ (He put the odds of a successful flight at somewhere between 50 percent and 70 percent which is the often quoted, but maybe not accurate,  success rate for change and transformation projects)
  6. Recognising that modeling and scenario planning are not failsafe. For Falcon Heavy, ‘It is also difficult to model the vibration and acoustic environment at the base of the rocket where the 27 Merlin engines will be firing. The engines were test fired at the pad on Jan. 24 and SpaceX said later there were no problems. But, Musk warned Monday, “there’s so much that can go wrong here.”’
  7. Giving an implementation timeline but being prepared to move it out. Musk, ‘the SpaceX CEO is known for his — let’s call them “aspirational” — timelines.’
  8. Having done the planning, then being willing to take the risk of moving ahead knowing things may not work out.  As Musk says ‘you’ve got to take big chances in order for the potential for a big positive outcome’

Now I’m looking at that list and thinking that isn’t totally convincing as a complete list of do-ability criteria.  It’s a good start, but insufficient because Musk is not your average programme director or middle manager.

Most project do-ability conditions are also about more prosaic things like maintaining business as usual while introducing the new ways, working with sudden budget cuts or loss of key staff,  overcoming the difficulties inherent in patched together legacy IT systems,  having the ability to change organisational policies and rules, overcoming the long shadow previous transformations cast, working through the organisational politics, and being reasonably confident that organisational data is valid, current, reliable, and easily accessible (quite often not the case).  I’ll add those to my list.

What are your project do-ability criteria?  How do you create the conditions to make a project do-able?  Let me know.

Image:  The roadster in space

If you want to know where the roadster + starman is now, look here where there is an up to date tracker.

Hostile organisation design

The Big Issue of 13 February 2018, has an article on hostile design.  It highlights ‘the use of architecture that excludes people or has a negative effect on public spaces.’  For example, designing park benches in such a way that people can’t lie down on them.

A couple of days later I read about the ‘ironing board’ seats on new UK trains which have ‘prompted complaints over hard seats, upright backs and low arm rests. One passenger complained of suffering from “numb bum” on the trains.’

The two examples are different, but in the same ball park, the park bench design is intentionally hostile  (see a debate on it here),  whilst the hard seats are probably thoughtlessly hostile (or designed to a cost spec which didn’t allow for more than the bare minimum).

Then I read Leandro Herrero’s daily thought on the tyranny of metrics where he quotes the blurb from Jerry Muller’s book on the topic.  I haven’t yet read the book, but I have now read a review of it, which concludes:

‘Many of us have the vague sense that metrics are leading us astray, stripping away context, devaluing subtle human judgement, and rewarding those who know how to play the system. Muller’s book crisply explains where this fashion came from, why it can be so counterproductive and why we don’t learn.’

(I’ve also ordered the book from my excellent public library).

Organisational metrics are often both intentionally and thoughtlessly hostile.  Take, for example a common call centre operatives performance metric ‘average handle time’ i.e. ‘the total average duration of a single call, including hold time, talk time and the follow-up or admin tasks related to that call.’ Its intentional hostile impact is to penalize reps who are efficient but may also take longer calls to help customers through complex problems.  Its thoughtless hostility lies in the fact that ‘it doesn’t tie back customer retention, growth or any other meaningful key performance indicator’ but people are held to it regardless.

Similar metrics rule doctors’ lives and the book Admissions, by Henry Marsh that I read earlier this year is awash with examples of what I am now beginning to think of as hostile organization design – in my definition this covers both intentional and thoughtless hostility.

Having sensitised myself to the hostile design concept, I’m now wondering how useful it is in practice.  Should organisation designers be alerted to hostile design via some equivalence of the ‘empathy suits’ that Ford vehicle engineers and designers put on to help them actually experience what it’s like to be someone aging, or pregnant, or drunk, and trying to drive a car.

The experience of ‘being’ such a user helps them (Ford engineers) design and build vehicles with special needs and limitations in mind, thus going some way to making vehicles easy and pleasant to use regardless of user.   They really do have the third age suit – similar to the MIT AGNES one – and also  the pregnancy suit, and the drugged and drunk suit.

As we design – and I’m including organisation designers, their sponsors and all the organisation’s leaders here – we could try out variations on the ‘employee empathy suit’.  Ones that spring to mind are the ‘pay differential’ suit,  as we design pay systems,  or the 9-box grid suit as we design performance management systems, or the gender bias in recruitment and talent management suit  as we design those systems.

Experiencing life through those suits would highlight what makes systems, processes, policies, and measures employee/customer friendly, and what makes them hostile.

Going back to hostile design/architecture, it is criticised for its manifestation ‘in the form of “silent agents” that take care of behaviour in public space, without the explicit presence of authorities’ or intervention of other humans.  Thus an anti-sticker sheath or anti-graffiti paint stops street voices.

Using physical design to shape behaviour is very similar to the design ‘nudges’ we are getting from various organisations as we go about our daily lives.   The average handle time mentioned earlier is an example.  Both evoke similar concerns that although design and behavioural nudging can be problematic, in some circumstances it can be useful.

Distinguishing between ‘hostility’ and ‘friendliness’ in design – whether physical or organisational design calls for reflective, ethical consideration.  One ethicist notes that ‘In fact the permissibility of a nudge derives from whether it is being used in an ethically acceptable way, something that can only be explored on an individual basis.  … nudges are justified if they maximise future liberty. Either way the nudging itself is not inherently problematic.’

This notion of differentiating between ‘hostile’ and ‘friendly’ design from an ethical perspective requires not only empathising with the users of the design but also quality collective debate and individual deliberation on the implications and consequences of the design.  These all, I think, are largely missing from organisation design discussions and it is time we brought it into our practice.

What’s your view on hostile design?  Let me know.

Image: Archisuits

Archisuit, designed by Sarah Ross, consists of an edition of four leisure jogging suits made for specific architectural structures in Los Angeles. The suits include the negative space of the structures and allow a wearer to fit into, or onto, structures designed to deny them.

Shared values or not

‘You don’t need to share values’, someone I was in a meeting with the other day, said very firmly.  I’ve been thinking about his statement.  In each of lift lobbies where I work the organisation’s values are the first thing you see when you leave the lift.  They’re painted large on the wall opposite the lift doors.  I found his statement intriguing and I’ve been asking myself some questions that it raised for me:

  • Do I share those values?
  • If so, how do I convert them into my day to day working life, so I ‘live’ them?
  • Are the values ‘liveable’ – for example, if I make what I believe to be a ‘bold decision’ (one of the values) what if others believe it is foolhardy, risky, or wrong?
  • Does it matter if I don’t share the values? If so, in what way?
  • What if I do share the values but interpret them differently from others – what are the implications?
  • How does the concept of ‘sharing values’ square with the concept of ‘valuing diversity’? Suppose someone doesn’t share the values but met all other criteria for employment, would we say that they are not right for this organisation –  in which case would we be valuing diversity – or only some aspect of it?

Maybe I’m overthinking this off-the-cuff comment, but it led me into looking more at espoused values – those that appear on walls, on corporate websites, sometimes in the employee handbook and on induction programmes.   In a paper ‘Evaluating espoused values: does articulating values pay off?’  Researchers noted that there’s often ‘cynicism and suspicion about the values that companies espouse with their written value statements. Terms like “window dressing”, “greenwashing”, and “PC” (political correctness) easily spring to mind because the link between articulated values and corporate behaviour may be tenuous’.

Nevertheless, these researchers offer several reasons why having them is worthwhile.  They found that espoused values:

  • Are important because they are positively associated with financial performance.
  • Help with ‘impression management’ and that a ‘corporation’s ability to communicate values to their current and potential stakeholders is better than not trying at all.’
  • Are increasingly contractually required in order to acquire new customers, including governments.
  • Are associated with matching people’s values with those of the organization and that ‘communicating espoused organizational values upfront paves the way for matching expectations and for relevant discussions prior to recruitment and relationships with potential partners.’
  • Can help employees (and potentially other stakeholders) focus their attention on what is considered ‘right behaviour’ and assist in their interpretation of what makes a ‘good soldier’: they know what ideal to strive for, what is conceptually expected from them, as they are a ‘solid cue for current and future staff and managers of the organization regarding what is important around here.’

They conclude their paper saying, ‘Our findings suggest that, while managers should not naively believe that corporate values will necessarily be exactly what people in the organization do, there is some advantage to espousing values actively as part of corporate communications strategies. We recommend espousing values that are, at least to some extent, different to those of other companies, and we believe that organizations are better off adopting a dynamic approach to espoused values where changes and dialogues take place.’

The ‘dynamic approach’ is interesting.  Their suggestion is that it is better to change an organisation’s espoused values over time, rather than stick with a long-term stable set.

The changing nature of espoused values in organisations is touched on in another research paper, Mapping Espoused Organisational Values.  Here researchers found that ‘A first observation is that our inventory of espoused values has similarities with previous frameworks on organisational values in general. For example, all include values that are concerned with capability, including performance, efficiency, flexibility and adaptability. … However, there are categories in our inventory that are not evident in most of the prior frameworks. In particular …  values that reside in the ‘Emphasis on Community’ … such as ‘sustainability’, ‘care for environment’, ‘social responsibility’ and ‘ethical practice’.   Similarly, values such as achievement’, ‘winning’ and ‘challenge’ do not appear in earlier inventories.

They suggest that ‘the richness of value labels that relates to broader ethical issues may be aimed at external stakeholder management, but also may have an increasing influence on organizational behaviour as they are embedded into organizational practices.’

I what ‘embedded’ means?  What I take it to mean is that the espoused values must be more than words on a wall.  They must be evident in every day use.  Achieving this could contribute to overcoming the ‘say-do’ disconnect which gives rise to the cynicism that often accompanies discussions of organisational values.  (See some research on this in:  Inspiration and Cynicism in Values Statements) How does being embedded square with being dynamic?

One way of making use of the values is in decision making.  Joel Urbany explains how to do this.  He points out that ‘a decision necessarily involves an implicit or explicit trade-off of values. Because the values that underlie our decision making are often buried in the shortcuts we take, we need a means for revealing those values and expressly thinking through the trade-offs between them.’  He outlines a process of decision mapping that ‘literally creates a picture of a decision that is built around choice options, consequences, outcomes and values/goals.’

Principle 1: Every action represents a choice

Principle 2: Every choice option has both positive and negative poles.

Principle 3: Every decision is a trade-off of values.

Principle 4: Reflections about values are more likely to “stick” if they are grounded in the reality of everyday or recognizable decisions rather than presented in the form of abstract exhortations.

Urbany continues by outlining how to use decision mapping as an everyday tool in organisational life, linking it to the values of the organisation.

This seems a practical and useful approach to both having and using organisational values, what it doesn’t mean is that someone has to ‘share’ the values – they just have to enact them.

I didn’t answer all my questions as I pondered the statement ‘You don’t need to share values’ – but I ended up agreeing with it.

Do you think employees need to share organizational values?  Let me know.

Image: Sharing values and social ontology, Marcus Hedahl & Bryce Huebner


Organization design: a toolkit of toolkits

Need a tool?  Look in the toolkit?  But which toolkit and which tool?  I’m often scrambling around looking for exactly the right tool for the piece of work that I’m engaged in.  I’ve got a very extensive toolkit myself garnered over the years.   At some point I’m going to categorise and order them so I don’t have such difficulty locating them when I’m looking.  I know I have them somewhere.  I’d like a virtual pegboard with the painted-on outline of the tool, so I can easily spot which ones are missing from their peg.

I also have a number of off-the-shelf toolkits: do-it-yourself starter kits as it were.  Here are ten of them with brief notes. Each one is free and downloadable.   I’m not specifically recommending one over the other.  Like any off-the -shelf pack they all have some useful bits and some that you may not use but come as part of the kit.   (See also my blog ‘Skateboards and Speedbumps’)

1              Virtual crash course in design thinking. This is a Stanford D-school, 90 minute  online version with video, handouts, and facilitation tips.  It goes step by step through the process of facilitating a design challenge.  I first used it with a group of 30 to redesign our organisational room booking system.  People loved the interactivity and the fact that they were able to collectively redesign the system from a user perspective in ways that we can take forward.

2              Brains, Behaviour, and Design toolkit   Someone told me about this toolkit around 5 years ago and I’ve used elements of it in many workshops. It’s billed as ‘five tools to help designers apply findings from the field of behavioral economics to their practice in order to provide a head start on framing research as well as developing new strategies for solving user problems.’ The tool I use most frequently – and have used it this week – is the one on Losses and Gains.  It’s really helpful in situations where people’s only focus is on their loss of something in a situation – for example, their own desk if we’re moving to hot-desking.  Having a discussion on what they might gain gives another perspective.

3              The Iriss toolkit has been designed to support people to consider community and societal issues particularly in health and social care.  But don’t be put off if you’re not in that sector.  It’s got a wide range of tools that are easily adaptable to other contexts.  The D-Cards (Difficulties, decisions, deliberations) tool comprises nine ‘think’ cards for planning and preparing for difficult discussions, and 13 ‘activity’ cards which present methods that can be done in a group. ‘The cards explain what the process is, it’s purpose, how to engage in this process and what we thought did and did not work when engaging in this process.’

4              IDEO Human Centered Design Toolkit You can download a free pdf of the design kit by signing up.  I downloaded mine several years ago (mine is second edition) and haven’t checked if the one currently available for download is the same as that or not.  However, mine is in three chunky sections:  hear, deliver, create, each with instructions, methods and case studies.  I’ve found the the P.O.I.N.T. technique useful.  In this you translate problems and needs identified in storytelling (one of the methods) into insights (also a method) and Themes. P = Problems, O = Obstacles, I = Insights, N = Needs,T = Themes

5              NHS Developing Together OD Toolkit – in this toolkit OD means organisational development.  It’s extensive, well-written and practical, without neglecting the theory.   It takes as a start-point that OD is “an interdisciplinary and primarily behavioural science approach that draws from fields such as organisation behaviour, management, business, psychology, sociology, anthropology, economics, education, counselling and public administration”.   This makes it a complement to the organisation design approach.  It’s well worth browsing though and I like all the additional references that it lists.

6              Frog Design Collective Action Toolkit.  This is lovely toolkit – well designed and presented.  It ‘uses an action map with activities arranged into six areas. All you need is motivation and enthusiasm to get started.’  Each of the six action areas has a number of immediately practical tools.  One group I worked with had great fun with the ‘Knowledge Hunt’ tool which asked them to ‘Find out what your team already knows about your group’s challenge— and what else you’d like to learn.’  It led to lively discussion, a lot of learning and several avenues to explore further.

7             DPSA Guide and Toolkit on Organization Design.  This is one from the Government of South Africa and is good for people looking for an organisation design phased methodology focused on structures.  It’s very detailed with 290 pages each phase described by process, tools and execution.  It’s got 76 excellent tools categorised by design phase, plus some helpful ‘Decision Points’  e.g. Decision point 1 ‘Is it a structural problem?’.

8            State Government Victoria, Organisational Design: an ideas source book.  This is another government’s guide to Org Design.  It takes a different tack from South Africa’s in that it is not as prescriptive and instructional, rather, saying ‘the publication has been developed to provide information, insights and advice that may be useful for organisational leaders working in any public organisation and thinking about adopting or abandoning any type of design’.  It’s an ‘ideas sourcebook’.  Striking (and welcome) is the statement ‘The fact is that there is an increasing number of organisational forms that cannot be simply illustrated by an organisational chart.’

9           Mind Lab Methods Cards This is a set of cards presenting Mind Lab’s ‘most used methods for policy and iterative design processes’.   The one on cultural probes is useful for gaining insight into ‘aspects of peoples’ daily lives, attitudes and values that do not emerge from traditional interviews’.  This is helpful in organisation design work when we are trying to work out the ‘say-do’ disconnects that pepper organisational life and that are part of the current design whether acknowledged or not.

10         Design Thinking Bootleg this, like the Virtual Crash Course mentioned above, is also from the Stanford D-school. It is ‘more of a cook book than a text book, and more of a constant work-in-progress than a polished and permanent piece.’ That said it is a good resource for some tools not commonly used, but that I’ve found are helpful, in organisation design work, like ‘Powers of Ten’ and ‘Why, How Laddering’.

11       Others I use which are also free and downloadable: HRBP Organization Design Toolkit ,  Good work ToolkitKelly Sears Organization Design Toolkit

What toolkits are in your toolkit?  Let me know.

Since writing the above I have found ‘The Nesta DIY Toolkit [that] has been especially designed for development practitioners to invent, adopt or adapt ideas that can deliver better results.’  And theSystems Thinking Toolkit‘ from FSG.


Image: Estate sale tools

Where could sci-fi take us?

‘The best approaches in complex situations are, well, complex. They entail the use of many different techniques, some of which we are not very good at, and some of which are quite sophisticated, novel, or nuanced.’  For those of us who think organizations are complex it holds that to attempt to design or redesign one will require the use of ‘many different techniques’.

Dave Pollard,   whose quotes these are, says, ‘what I have learned so far is that an effective approach to a complex predicament should have these [sixteen] attributes’.  He lists them:  methodical, purposeful, visionary, preventive, defensive, attentive, experiential, improvisational, collaborative, holistic, appreciative, open, bottom-up, trusting, humble and redundant, and then explains each of them.

Organization design work often involves ‘complex predicaments’.  Just skimming press reports on GE’s struggles to re-design , or the efforts by Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway and JPMorgan to improve US health care shows the nature of the challenges and opportunities facing organizations now.

However, much organization design work in established organizations, such as the four mentioned in the previous para, does not recognise complexity, and it is reactive:  a response to current or good-guess future changes in the operating context.  It is often a defensive move – to protect market share, for example – or an offensive move to disarm a competitor.  This design work does not have as the first aim changing the environmental context –  rather the design work is initiated because the context is forcing changes on the organization.

It’s possible that the conventional organsation design approaches will work in these situations:  they tend to be hinged on well-worn models – McKinsey 7 S, Galbraith’s Star, Weisbord’s six box model, or similar – and follow a sequential ‘phased’ approach that takes the organization from current state to the desired new state (with a greater or lesser degree of success).  There are many summaries and toolkits associated with this generally programmatic approach.

But compare the established organizations approach to redesign with the start-ups.  Their aim often is to change the existing operating context.  Think about those early leaders in the sharing economy like  Air B n B which changed the way we think about holiday accommodation.  At their outset they rarely go through a programmatic design process.  Their design emerges, much more in line with Pollard’s sixteen attributes, until they reach a certain size and then they may look to ‘design’ their organization or aspects of it.   Often, they turn to using a traditional approach – although it may be laced with agile or ‘design thinking’.

Suppose organization designers took a less mechanistic view of what organizations – established or start up –  ‘are’.  Suppose we stopped using the language of alignment, levers, chains of command, etc and instead believed that ‘Organizations, like complex systems in nature, are dynamic non-linear systems and the outcomes of their actions are unpredictable’ and further, believed that in these systems ‘each actor is ignorant of the behaviour of the system as a whole and responds only to the information that is available locally’.  Or used Dave Pollard’s sixteen attributes for ongoing design work.  Where would these leave the model/phase or other conventional how to approaches to design?

This question becomes material if we want to move from reactive design work to proactive design work that jumps us from path dependence into the unknown.  By proactive I mean working with questions like:

  • What is an organization? (Is it definable as an entity – where are its boundaries, interdependencies …)
  • How do we manage/design the simultaneously complex, chaotic, complicated and simple aspects of our ‘organization’
  • What in our organization is complex, what complicated, what chaotic, what simple? And why do we need to differentiate?
  • How can we conceive and work with the multiple possible futures for it/us?
  • How can we recognise when our responses to problems are locking us into patterns we find hard to escape from?
  • How do we mitigate path dependence?
  • How can we work creatively with the unknown, the partially known, and the uncertain?
  • Can we design a better future? If so, how?

NOTE:  I’ve adapted these questions from the International Futures Forum – Ready for Anything book and from the Dave Pollard piece mentioned above.

The idea of proactivity means being curious, critical and creative as we consider the future.  It means giving up the ideas of thinking we have control in order to develop skills in working courageously with multiple possibilities and not knowing and not controlling.

I’ve been wondering how to apply this notion of proactive design which was sparked by my reading a science fiction book  Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson  that I’ve written about before.  It seems to me that sci fi writers create a world of possibilities that could help us in our design work.  I started to noodle on this and came across a paper by academic Bernard Burnes and others.  The ‘paper explores how science fiction and fantasy (SFF) can be used to prepare for and shape organizational analysis. Exploring the consequences of scientific innovation is a key purpose of SFF. The speculative nature of the genre makes it a fertile metaphorical ground for testing new management concepts.’ It’s an appealing approach if we are aiming for organization longevity.

Is anyone using sci-fi or other approaches to throw off programmatic reactive design work and pick up emergent proactive design work?  Let me know.

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