Organisation design: Odile the organisation designer, part 3

A couple of weeks ago I started the story – following the story arc: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution –  of Odile the organisation designer as she joined Intersection Railways in a newly created role of Organisation Design Lead.  The second part of the story, left Odile deciding to take several actions as she strove to use Intersection Railways intention to introduce a sleeper service and related app as a test bed for a) proving value an organisational design ‘movement’ and b) developing a governance framework for the movement – bearing in mind that Ernestine the Enterprise Architect had already established something on these lines.   Odile’s story continues here – she is about to present to the Executive to get their support for her work

Characters:  Odile the organisation designer.  Hans Fischer, Director, Marketing and Comms. Leonie Bletcher, Director Operational Planning.  Farzin Ahmadi, HR Director and Odile’s manager.

Chapter 2:  Climax

Odile (to herself): Oh dear, it’s nerve wracking to be standing outside the Executive Suite waiting to be called in.  Still, it’s better face to face than being in a virtual meeting with them.  I hope I don’t get bumped off the agenda, Farzin warned me that it was very packed, and that he, Hans, and Leonie had had to act in concert to get me a slot.  The Executive secretariat thought it was a fringe, low-value item.   I hope I can convince the Executive that it’s not – it’s high value.    What will they think of me? I haven’t met all of them yet.  I think I can rely on some support but I’ve heard that the VP Infrastructure can be very brusque and dismissive and I haven’t met her.   Will I be able to handle the group dynamics, how do they interact as a team?  OK, I need to think positively here.  As long as they are curious, I think it will go well.

Post-presentation hot wash

Hans: Wow, Odile, good for you. That was a stunning performance.   There were three points that I commend you on.  First,  slightly disarming them by opening with the point that you’ve been with Intersection Railways around 100 days, and they may think you hadn’t learned enough about Intersection Railways to make substantial proposals, but you’re going to show them that you have.  Second, following this up with the  3  specific things you have achieved since you joined:  coalition building, the systems map, and the framework for the minimum viable data set.   You certainly aroused their curiosity as you explored these with them.  Third the way you wove in the complexity angles.  They’re not well-versed in this and there’s a danger it coming across as jargon, or mystifying.  The fact that you’d organised a demo of Sensemaker (badged as ‘making sense of complexity’) for a good proportion of enterprise architects, other designers and data analysts  went down well. 

Leonie:  Yes, congratulations, Odile, I was holding my breath a bit when Rajit Rajan (Head of Infrastructure) started to argue that Enterprise Architecture was in his domain and ‘did’ organisation design. Implying that he ‘owned’ it.  He and Farzin are known for fighting turf wars

I think you surprised him by saying that you and Ernestine, (Enterprise Architect reporting to Rajit), have developed a great working relationship and are able to see the way your different perspectives on design can be blended and grown to make a very strong and collaborative design ‘offering’.

The way you explained how you moved the relationship from spiky to collaborative, was a nice little learning cameo. I saw some members of the Executive smiling as you explained the losses and gains discussion, (Note: a tool in the Brains Behaviour and Design Toolkit).   You went on to remark that collaboration and ‘one team’ are part of Intersection Railways stated values, and the fact that you and Ernestine, having now established common ground, are moving forward together was, I thought a not too challenging reminder to the Executive members to walk the talk themselves.

Farzin:  Ha ha – yes, I wondered whether to take that as a mild rebuke to me and Rajit. Nevertheless, I’ll let that pass as I think you ably proved the value of cross-discipline, collaborative ‘design’ in Intersection railways.  Your emphasis on making it central to our strategic delivery with examples on what we have learned from some of the failures and sticking points in the sleeper service/app so far was excellent. (Note: See Fail Forward for good resources).

A bit of our history is that we develop a good strategy that fails to get to a good implementation because we haven’t gone through a reflective, aligned, and collaborative design process that recognises complexity.  (Note: see the Brightline Initiative for articles and resources on bridging the gap between strategy design and delivery).

The other thing I think you did well was clearly present the next steps and assume their approval for them.

Odile:  Thank you, and just to make the point that my presentation wasn’t just my work.  A group of us, in design and other disciplines across Intersection Railways, got together.  So, in that sense we’ve sown the seeds of the design movement that I’ve been charged to develop.

I was pleased that the Executive agreed with my saying that any change including design change, is brought about not just in the structures, systems, and process change but also in the emotional and interactional experiences of people.  It seemed to resonate with them. Maybe they also appreciated my view that leaders are people too, and they find change hard even as they promote it.

Differently, I have to thank you three for being such a great informal steering group for this piece of work.    I think I’ve come away from that Executive meeting with their buy-in.  

Farzin, Leonie, Hans:  Yes – you’ve got the mandate.  Now to continue to the next phase of the work

Odile: (Later to herself).   Right.  I’m glad that went well.  Now to put develop the proposal I put to design the governance of both a design movement and the way we design products/services somewhat as ICANN  is organised – as ‘a bottom-up, consensus-driven, multi-stakeholder model’.  It’s big step away from the formality of the ‘Board for Governing cross-department process and IT change initiatives’ that Ernestine has instigated but I think there are strong arguments in favour of simplifying the bureaucracy and getting involvement and insights from a range of people.   

I was surprised the Executive supported this – we must make sure that we keep them informed and interested on what it means in practice, and what a radical shift it is for Intersection Railways. I’m anxious about their interpersonal dynamics and differing agendas.  I wonder if they really are supportive.  I’ll have to keep an eye on that.

Now, there’s the comms and wider engagement angle to plan in detail.  I’m glad Hans really does seem supportive.  I wonder if he’s seen the report From the Margins to the Mainstream – it’s aimed at government innovators, but it’s got some interesting ideas in it we could perhaps adapt to accelerate whole organisation design thinking in a complex system.  (Oh, I better not get ahead of myself here).


Odile seems on track.  Do you think she’ll be successful? If so, why?  If not, why not?  Let me know.  (Final episode to come).

Image: Design Leadership Skills

Organisation design: complexify our practice

Entangled photons

From Sharon Varney:  My news is that I have (finally!) written the book I was talking about last time we met. Although the title is leadership, it engages with the notion of pro-active org design that you were exploring at The Henley Forum conference a couple of years ago. … Would you be interested in reading and reviewing a pre-publication copy?

Me:  Yes, I’d be delighted to read your book.  Will it be a hard or a soft copy?  (Hard preferred as I find it easier to mark up, flick back and forwards in and dip into).

The book, Leadership in Complexity and Change: for a world in constant motion, arrived in my in-box in soft copy, as an uncorrected proof in early September, and in hard copy at the end of October.   I did skim through the soft copy and you’ll see mention of it in my blog Data and Complexity

My hard copy is now getting a somewhat used look, and I’ve found it an excellent read.  Caveat: I can’t make the fulsome recommendation I would like to, on the lines of, ‘I have no doubt in my mind that this is a book to read’, because Varney tells us, p 197, that when she hears the phrase, ‘I have no doubt in my mind’,  she thinks ‘what a lack of imagination!’ Following up with, ‘I realise that it is the kind of certainty that often people want to hear in uncertainty.’  She urges us to wield the inner courage to embrace doubt – maintaining multiple and conflicting possibilities at the same time.   I don’t know whether you will enjoy the book, learn from it, apply some of the thinking, … maybe you will/maybe you won’t, I did. 

The book’s introduction tells readers, ‘This book paints a picture of an interconnected world that is in constant motion, where leadership is enacted in the midst of complexity and change,’ and this is what the book does.  In a straightforward, accessible way, woven with anecdotes, cases, key points and noticing activities for the reader, Varney ‘invites’ us to complexify our leadership practices, in order to lead better. 

In three sections:  A dynamic landscape for leadership and change, tools and techniques for leadership, leadership in person, Varney discusses key ideas from complexity science (the science of uncertainty) and gives insights and ideas in how to apply them in the day to day, changing some of our ingrained habits of thinking along the way. 

The book is a welcome counter view to the ideas that leaders are ‘ín charge’ and can control and manage their environments as if organisations are stable.  In fact, as she says, ‘organisational stability only arises through continuous changing’, and that continuous changing is what she calls ‘dynamic patterning’.   

One of the key themes is that of ‘emergence’ – something that was not there before comes into existence.  She notes that emergence is full of surprises ‘because cause and effect are all tangled up’, and it is this that we need to intentionally notice, interpret, and reflect on, before responding.

Each chapter closes with ‘Noticing and noting’ activity. For example, in the chapter Applying Complexity Thinking the activity is to ‘Think about a leadership or change model that you have used before. Now look at that model with new eyes.  Ask yourself:  In what ways is that model wrong, in what ways is that model useful, what am I not seeing, what other models could help me to see things differently?

Overall, I think the book offers a sound and useful contribution to the field of complexity science applied to leadership.  It’s born out of Sharon’s own practical experience and academic reflections.  I enjoyed the conversational style (first person, jargon-light, concepts clearly explained) – it’s definitely not a drudge to read.

One of the plus points, for me, is the sound theoretical underpinning – the reference list is comprehensive, running to 10 pages.  (But, rest assured, this is no academic tome), and there is a glossary of terms from complexity science.  (It also includes some terms Varney has developed for her own related work e.g. small data).

The book has left me asking four questions – by the way, powerful questioning is one of the leadership traits Sharon strongly advocates.  She, rightly, says ‘Questions offer a great way to open up thinking.  Answering closes it down.  Answers are fine in a stable world where inputs have clear outputs, problems have knowable solutions, and interventions have predictable effects.  We are not working in that world.’

My first question is:  how many leaders are willing to have conversations that challenge conventional thinking on power, control, and ‘change management’?  In my experience, not many in the day to day working world, though they will, up to a point, in ‘development sessions’. 

I remember offering a leader a couple of design options for his organisation, with the pros and cons of each and how they might play out and the possible consequences, intended and unintended of them.  He was not pleased.  He asked me ‘which one is right?’ when I replied ‘I don’t know, they could probably both work’.   He exploded, saying, ‘We’re paying you a lot of money to give us the right answer!’

My second question is:  what prevents them from being willing or able to engage in such conversations?  Sometimes I’ve found it is impatience with the consultant (me!) being ‘too academic’ or ‘too theoretical’.  Other times it’s performance pressures – got to get the paper to the executive by 16:00 today, no time to discuss, just get something on paper.  Sometimes it’s not being willing to be curious – ‘I’m just here to do my job’.  There are multiple other reasons. 

One of the challenges for this book is drawing in a readership who aren’t already sympathetic to complexity science, but who might benefit from it (for themselves and their organisations), if they could get interested.

My third question, was triggered by a statement by Leandro Herrero, in his book The Flipping Point:  ‘Many long, complex and expensive reorganization projects by Big Consulting Groups make companies fully prepared for the past.’   Is this a fair statement?   As organisational leaders look to the big consulting companies to help them, I was curious about what they said about complexity.

The ones that I looked at suggested that their aim was to ‘solve’ or ‘simplify’ complexity.   

An Accenture blog, for example, explains ‘organizations face more complex challenges; this complexity can be costly. …  Therefore, solving the complexity becomes a valuable skill for organizations.’

While PA Consulting ‘works with organisations to help them to simplify complexity and to better understand, manage and exploit interdependencies.’ 

Varney suggests that, ‘What we are aiming for is to complexify our [leadership] practice’, (p 199).  The implication being that this will help leaders respond to surprises and emergence better than if they try to simplify or solve situations.  (Her final chapter suggests ways leaders can complexify their practice). Her view is that, ‘Complexity is the source of adaptability. So, by all means simplify bureaucracy. But, if you remove complexity, you’ll lose the internal ability to adapt in a changing world.’ 

From this, a fourth question sprang to mind – is it possible to simplify or solve complexity as the big consultancies seem to be saying, or is it more effective to complexify our practice, as Varney is saying?

 How would you answer this last question?  Let me know.

Image entangled photons

Organisation design: Odile the organisation designer, part 2

A couple of weeks ago I started the story of Odile the organisation designer as she joined Intersection Railways in a newly created role of Organisation Design Lead.  This is the second part of the story – and now it’s looking as if it’s going to need a third part!  (Ed: This neatly illustrates that we don’t know where things will go, when we begin).

Recap on Odile the organisation designer, part 1.

‘I left the meeting with Farzin Ahmadi  (the HR Director I report to) with a brief 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)

I thought that the sleeper train project, colleagues were involved in, could provide a test bed for developing the strategy.  Drawing on my social anthropology skills and experiences I set off to use the sleeper train introduction to spark an organisation design movement.’

Chapter 1:  Rising action, Part 2.  After that meeting I spent a couple more weeks doing a more rigorous baseline assessment of the design landscape.  I used the questions in Jim Collins’s Good to Great® Diagnostic Tool  as a rough guide to areas to look at.   As I tried to chart the various design communities in the organisation with a view to drawing them together, what the diagnosis revealed was several, seemingly giant hurdles which seemed to fall into 3 categories

Location in organisation chart

The different design-related communities are located in different reporting lines (on the organisation chart), so user researchers have a different reporting line from service designers, and they from enterprise architects, communications designers, and so on. 

The way managers’ performance is managed means that there is little incentive for those leading a reporting line, to co-operate or partner with those leading another reporting line.   

The boundaries of the different design disciplines leads to fragmentation of design approach, confusing use of language and terms – there is no commonly agreed taxonomy or glossary – for example an agreed description of a business capability, or the relationship of a capability and a product.  So meetings sometimes degenerate into people talking at cross-purposes, or making assumptions on what is being discussed, or spending time trying to agree on a definition of something.

My own location in the HR reporting line seems to be a disadvantage as I feel I’m being typecast as ‘HR’ and am continuously being told that ‘we’ll get to the people aspect later in the design process’.  I’m privately wondering if I’d feel, and be, less disadvantaged if I were in the COO or Strategy office.


My idea to use the night sleeper train project as a test out for generating the ‘design movement’,  means working not only across internal business units but also across several external organisations (and government regulators) each of whom has different interests in and views of the value of introducing a sleeper train service that crosses borders.  Getting access to all of these could be problematic.


Data sharing across the disciplines is weak as legacy systems and patching in of new software has been done piecemeal in the business units, rather than as a whole organisation common platform – this is getting easier, but there is a general lack of trust on the quality of the data generated, (not to mention the different interpretations of the data that is generated).

Specifically on the people front (which others seem to think is what organisation design is mainly about – juggling the organisation chart), there doesn’t seem to be a recognition that the strategy to introduce a sleeper service with app is constrained by numerous factors which need to be acknowledged up-front.  The ‘people’ aspect is only one of them, albeit it a critical one.  On the people, we need to know their numbers, skills, where and how they work, what the possibilities are of staffing up a new service and app, and so on.  This is the arena of workforce analytics – outside my skill-set, but one of the disciplines that needs to be in at the start of a project like this. 


I talked with several leadership team members about organisation design, and discovered that they were largely unaware of systems thinking, complexity science, and the way informal networks of influence operate in organisations. 

It was heartening to hear that they were curious and interested in the topics and keen to see synergies and collaboration increase across the design community.   Hans Fischer, Director, Marketing and Comms, and Leonie Bletcher, Director Operational Planning, were particularly supportive and I mentally tagged them as sponsors for the design movement project I was developing.  They were enthused about my idea to use the sleeper train service/app as a test bed for this.  

Even so, the enormity of my task felt rather over-whelming.  Then I remembered that a while ago I watched a short video, with Jim Collins, on the Stockdale Paradox .  Briefly, this suggests that however adverse and difficult the situation is, it is necessary to face the brutal reality of it, without glossing over or ignoring aspects of it.  With this brutal reality in one hand, you must balance it, on the other hand, with an unwavering faith in the endgame and be able to manage the tension this presents.  (NOTE: See also the HBS piece ‘What the Stockdale Paradox tells us about crisis leadership’).

I think I can do that, I have the brutal facts and at the same time I have a belief that I will (somehow) get my brief delivered. Now, after conversations with some allies, I have an action plan that follows patterns and sequence outlined in Enterprise Design Patterns  (see graphic). It involves risks, and may create conflict, or put some things in jeopardy, but being able to recognising the reality of the situation and maintaining a faith that I will manage whatever emerges, means I will be ‘both grounded and hopeful’.

What I’m thinking is, in the next couple of weeks is that I will:

  • Invite those I think have influence and are interested to help me develop the vision and purpose of an enterprise design movement.
  • Develop (with others)  a systems map (See intro to systems mapping and a case study of this approach in use. NOTE: although the latter is related to energy evaluation it is a full explanation of applying the approach with good explanatory graphic).  Doing  this will require collaboration with stakeholders, and yield a visual of the complexity of context of the sleeper train service/app.

My aim is to take this to leadership team meetings to get their support for establishing an informal community cross-organisation of designers to work on this and similar projects.  (We’ll have to work out how to formalise aspects of this if we want to use people’s time and skills for specific work).

  • Pull together the spec for a minimum viable dataset we would need to draw on to collaboratively  design and implement the sleeper/service app –  and see what we have already and whether there are any gaps.  I think there is already some good data, but it is not accessible to all who need it, so maybe we will only need to look at data access rights, and do a data quality assessment.

I think all this achievable, but I’m wondering if I’m missing the obvious.  How would you advise me to proceed at this stage?  Let me know.

Organisation design:  data and complexity

The UK’s Confederation of British Industry (CBI) boss, Tony Danker noted in early September “Labour shortages are biting right across the economy. These shortages are already affecting business operations and will have a negative impact on the UK’s economic recovery.”  He said that the UK the UK needed to simultaneously address short-term economic needs and long-term economic reform.

As I read this, I thought a similar statement could be made about any large organisation.  They are likely to have labour shortages, they are addressing short term viability and performance, they are also developing longer term strategies that may take them in somewhat different direction and they are responding to a national and international context.  

To keep the organisation performing in response to context changes, the participants in it are making small adaptive changes all the time to stay ‘on course’.    Curiously though, as Sharon Varney points out in her new book Leadership in Complexity and Change, ‘In the working world, change is often described in terms of static states (‘as is’ and ‘to be’) … We have artificially separated ‘change’ from ‘no change’ and assumed that ‘no change’ is the norm.’   She rightly says, ‘organisational life is in constant motion. The bigger patterns are continuously created from numerous small changes that we may not even notice under normal circumstances.’

She asks us to ‘Imagine, for example, that we make a structure change by creating a new position

in a team and bringing someone in to fill that position. Inevitably, there will be some procedural actions required for that to happen. Yet nothing has actually changed. The dynamic process of changing begins as people make adjustments in anticipation of the new person joining the team. The new person and existing team members are then involved in the process of changing as they adapt and respond to one another in the course of their work.’  

She makes a good case for asking us to notice (devoting a whole chapter to the topic), these processes of changing, saying ‘noticing and noting is an important practice for leadership in complexity and change. It sounds easy, but it takes some skill to do it well.’  What she is asking us to notice is the small scale, human, experiential, weak signals that are often easy to ignore, but could have high import.  (I have on my wall the Jon Kabat-Zinn quote, ‘The little things? The little moments? They aren’t little.’)

At the same time numeric data of all types is collected in organisations.  Numeric data is the bread and butter of organisational life – think of all the charts, dashboards, graphs, tables, excel spreadsheets – that you come across in your organisation.  People are described by their grade number in some organisations, e.g. ‘He’s a grade 6. (See my blog At Sixes and Sevens).

The numeric data gives comfort that we know something – how many people, their skills, their ethnicity, the activities they do, their capability, how engaged they are … ‘   But, as Nate Silver says (in his book The Signal and the Noise), “The numbers have no way of speaking for themselves. We speak for them, we imbue them with meaning.”

Statistician David Spiegelhalter take this further, saying ‘We can’t just collect some data and it’ll tell you the answer. There is an art to trying to extract information, knowledge and understanding from data, and even in choosing what data to collect.

The data-centric world view and the complexity world view are usually both at play in organisation design work, and often don’t sit comfortably with each other.   Yet they each have a part to play.

Taking the data angle first.  AHIR has a cheat-sheet of 51 metrics that could be collected and McBassi has a list of 100 questions typical workforce analytics,  of the type AHIR lists, can answer, for example:

  • Our recent employee survey highlighted our lowest scores; are these, in fact, the most important areas for us to focus on?
  • Some locations get new employees up to speed much more quickly; what are they doing differently?
  • Why is employee engagement higher for some job functions than for others?

orgvue takes a different approach, ‘using data points to deconstruct people, roles, and positions … then breaking down the roles into the processes and activities – in other words, the work – alongside the skills and competencies needed to do that work.’ They say, ‘by attaching accountability metrics to each role, you can compare how effectively the work is organized.’  (Note:  I am discussing an orgvue hosted event Bridging the gap between strategy and execution, with Giles Slinger on 18 November).

But the data is not the story and neither does it answer important questions – see the wonderful piece Data Will Help Us a brief manifesto about the promise and perils of data.  It begins ‘Data will help us remember, but will it let us forget?  It will help politicians get elected, but will it help them lead?’.

Of course, numeric data collection, analysis and interpretation is useful not on its own, but in combination with qualitative data, critical reflection, complexity science and open-minded curiosity.   Sharon Varney is firm on this: ‘Charts, trends, statistics, and dashboards are always wrong, even when rigorous procedures have been applied. They are wrong because they are simplifications of a more complex reality. We can never know in advance whether we have captured the aspects of complexity from the specific situation that will turn out to really count in what happens.  We must be provisional about what we know and understand that it will never be fully right. ‘

Returning to the first paras – about labour shortages, short term viability and performance, and longer-term strategies, you can see the need for both numeric data and complexity thinking.  For example.  We know that nationwide, ‘The shortage of HGV drivers is estimated to have grown from 60,000 to over 100,000’ during 2020/2021 but locally the availability of HGV drivers varies.  Data for October 2021 saw the largest increase in Norfolk, with figures going up more than three times.  While, in Wales, the number of jobs posted nearly tripled over the period. But in contrast, North Yorkshire and Hertfordshire saw a decrease in the number of vacancies for HGV drivers.

Suppose you are a nationwide employer of HGV drivers.  You may have a long-term strategy that you would, for example:  Open up routes into HGV driving via’s a new apprentice scheme, a traineeship, a kickstart placement.  Or, change transport method to train or waterways so fewer HGV drivers were needed.  Or recruit from a wider talent pool, considering those who might otherwise be overlooked in HGV driving based on their gender, ethnicity, or background. 

You would still need a short-term strategy to overcome the specific shortages, your own numeric data revealed – likely to be in some regions/localities and not others.  You would have to take into account personal understanding – the real people with context (aptitude, attitude, career interests, background etc) not fully represented in the data. People have lives, families etc. and manager/colleague understanding of people is a critical consideration when it comes to delivering strategy.  (For example, you couldn’t simply decide to relocate HGV drivers to a shortage region).   NOTE: Both short and long term strategies involve redesigning.  The aim is not to compromise the long-term strategy in favour of the short-term one.

Sharon Varney discusses three types of data that help with designing in complexity. (See image above).   One of these is traditional numeric data.  What types of data do you use for working in complexity?  Let me know.

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


Organisation design jottings: service design, leadership, rebels, hybrid, stories

Naikan practice asks you to reflect, daily, on three questions:

  • What have I received from __________ ?
  • What have I given to __________ ?
  • What troubles and difficulties have I caused __________ ?

Last week, that beginning 25 October, I received a lot.  Each day and each meeting gave me something to think about.  What I gave or what troubles or difficulties I caused during the week, I won’t go into here.  Instead, here are some of the things I received.   I’ll discuss by topic rather than by day.

Service design:  this came up in four different meetings in the week.  Two were specifically on service design – concepts, approaches, principles, methodologies, and two others were about the relationship of service design to organisation design.

I’m doing some work with Scottish Government on Education Reform, and in the course of this met with members of the Scottish Service Design Team.  They have a well-documented approach to service design,  beginning with the vision ‘that the people of Scotland are supported and empowered to actively participate in the definition, design and delivery of their public services (from policy making to live service improvement).’ 

The team says, ‘While we don’t have all the answers, we think we should start with a set of founding principles and build from there.’   I was particularly interested in their principle 2 (of 7).  It reads, ‘We design service journeys around people and not around how the public sector is organised.’

I’m not sure how you can implement a service – however good its design is – if the service journey is not designed to work with the design of the sector/enterprise. 

This point came up again in a webinar discussion, on service design, based on the persona and related case study of Severin the Service Designer. In the case he is being asked to develop an app to help a customer make an overnight train journey on ‘Intersection Railways’.  As I listened, Severin met many obstacles and disappointments as he failed to take full note of the organisational context in which he wanted to implement the app, and omitted to involve other functions e.g. marketing, in his thinking.   Click on the links to the webinar slides and/or watch the webinar video.

On service design related to organisational design I had a discussion with Marc Fonteijn who runs the Service Design Show where we were talking about a possible webinar that explained to service designers what organisation design is, and the second time in a discussion with enterprise designers Milan Guenther and Pascal Dussart on the possibility of constructing a persona and case study around ‘Odile the Organisation Designer’, showing the gap and/or the bridging of the gap between service and organisation design.   (Assuming there is a gap – what do you think?)

From these discussions I’ve added the sample chapter of two books: Good Services, Lou Downe,   and Service Design from Insight to Implementation, Andy Polaine. 

Leadership:  Sharon Varney’s new book Leadership in Complexity and Change, arrived for me to review. She asked me to do this, saying, ‘Although the title is leadership, it engages with the notion of pro-active org design that you were exploring at The Henley Forum conference a couple of years ago.’ The book came as I was reading Leandro Herrero’s post Is leadership so elusive or only in the hands of academics?  I often enjoy his thoughts and give him a thumbs up for them.  In this blog, he’s taking issue with academic platitudes on leadership, making the point, “It is frustrating that people who are portrayed as ‘leaders and experts on leadership’, generate platitudes of such a magnitude which I would not tolerate from junior consultants applying for a job with us.”

I know Sharon, and I was fairly confident that her book would not be a butt of Herrero’s frustration, but I did have that fleeting moment of ‘I really hope it isn’t’.  I was reassured, looking first at her list of references, and then at the index and content pages, that it was going to be a useful, interesting, non-platitudinous read.  And it is.  I’m not all the way through it yet, so the review will come soon, but from where I’ve got to so far it does live up to the promise that it unpacks complexity science carefully and in a way that usefully informs leadership practice.  (I enjoyed her statement that ‘this is a book about leadership that does not talk about leaders.  The reason for this is that leadership emerges between people, rather than existing in individuals’)

Talking systems:  Thursday brought a webinar discussion with Mark Cole of the NHS London Leadership & Lifelong Learning Team, (and author of the book Radical Organisation Development). The topic?  NHS Talking Systems – Revisiting the challenges of system and hybrid organisation design.  You can listen to the discussion here.   I talked at one point about encouraging rebels in the system, mentioning Corporate Rebels and Rebels at Work.  Mark made the points that being a rebel means a) they must have a recognisable cause b) they must be connected to others – I guess, though he didn’t say so explicitly, with the possibility of generating a movement around the cause.  His view is that it is easy to get side-lined or moved on/out of the organisation as a lone rebel. In this connection, someone mentioned Sam Coniff’s work Be More Pirate  (another sample chapter on my Kindle!)

Hybrid: Someone else raised the question ‘How can we navigate the bias or unfairness perceived in permitting certain staff groups to do hybrid working?’ (We talk about it at 44.47 on the video).  It’s a question I frequently get asked and it’s one I’ve written about too.  One way of addressing the question to look carefully at how work is done and then take some time to really think about other ways of then doing it differently – use spurs to thinking like Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies cards. Some work that appears non-amenable to remote working may not be. Another approach is to place hybrid working (the ability to work remotely) as a benefit in a basket of benefits that are on a par.  People could then choose which they wanted to take up.  Hybrid working does not have to give a perception of bias or unfairness.

Stories of workers and death:  The conversations I’ve been having with Glenda Eoyang and colleagues on the topic of death in organisations is crystalising.  We now have a date for a public conversation on the theme. ‘Stories of workers and death: Pathways toward wellbeing’.  It will be on Sunday 23 January.  The discussion we had on the way to arriving at this, was a wonderful dance of swirling and turning our ideas and the possibilities with a final emergence of something do-able that could be a lot of fun, a worthwhile experiment, a door to new thinking, and so on.  I left the call feeling energised.   (Info on the public conversation to come).

What have you received from others this past week that gives pause for reflection on your organisation design practice?  Let me know.


Organisation design:  future operating models, seven thoughts

“It’s time to plan the shift from “defense” to “offense,” with the goal to do more with less, reduce operating costs, and create additional capacity to fuel the mission and business in the midst of shrinking budgets, all while creating an engaged and agile workforce.”

This is the opening para of Deloitte’s 2020 briefing Reimagining operating models of the future to thriveIt’s about the post-Covid-19 pandemic world.  The Deloitte approach, further outlined in a blog dated 7 June 2021 offers the value chain and nine principles from which to develop an operating model framework “that moves organisations into the 21st century”.  (Ed: aren’t we well into the 21st century?).  The writer boldly says “the way an organisation ‘creates value’ can help leadership cut through the complexity of politics, legacy architecture and help focus their team members on the main task at hand” i.e. create the future operating model.

I’ve been asked to do a presentation on future operating models.  Googling the phrase brought up this Deloitte report and several other similar ones.  (Apologies to Deloitte for singling them out). I find their sorts of briefings frustrating on a number of counts.  I started to list the frustrations but thought better of it, deciding instead to offer some questions and thoughts on future operating models.

The first thought is: ‘why do we want a future operating model?’ Can we really get from ‘as-is’, to ‘to-be’?   As I’ve said in a previous blog (The future of organisation design) ‘The late South African economist Ludwig Lachmann once wrote: “The future is unknowable, though not unimaginable”.  So, thinking you can come up with a valid future operating model may depend on having a (misplaced?) confidence that you do know what the future holds.   

Listen to an interesting podcast ‘Why we want to predict the future (kind of)’  In it two pyschologists offer a couple of suggestions of why we are interested in such things as future operating models (and Tarot cards):  a) it gives a level of security and confidence, whether or not  b) people would like to sense of what they have to worry about or feel optimistic about. 

The second thought is are we limited in thinking about our future operating model (irrespective of whether we can predict the future) by the way we think about the present?  The same psychologists, in a different podcast, discuss the fact that our relationship to the present has more to do with how we imagine the future than we might think. In this episode ofTwo Guys on Your Head, Dr. Art Markman and Dr. Bob Duke talk about the psychology of futurism. 

As an example, this week’s Big Issue has an article by Simon Frederick talking about ‘The Outsiders?’   He says that ‘the UK television industry and the way it is run needs changing’ which I interpreted as it needs a future operating model.  He picks up on ‘diversity’ saying ‘There isn’t a diversity of content on UK television.  The people who run UK television have not got to grips with how to solve that because they see it as a problem.  It’s not a problem, it’s just a lack of creative thinking’.   Does the way the BBC thinks about diversity now, limit the way they think about it in the future?  If so, it is a significant limitation that opens up the field for channels that think more creatively about diversity.

The third thought is about what is the time horizon of a future operating model?  Is it realistic to think about a time horizon of 5 years?  Or is a future operating model for 12 months out too far?  If you are a social enterprise tech start up, for example, those participating in Careful Industries Emerging Infrastructure Design Lab the time horizon for a future operating model may be quite different from Unilever’s,  (established 1929).

The fourth thought is how much are organisations willing to put the time and effort into thinking about the future? 

Take an example I was using last year (see blog image) about economic recovery from the pandemic.  It shows ‘Reverse radical, swoosh shape, U shape, W shape, and V shape’.  Suppose you were developing your future operating model at the time, which recovery shape would you have based your operating model on?  What methods/info would you use to decide?  Suppose there was no agreement amongst the team developing the operating model?    This type of discussion takes reflective discussion with many stakeholders.  But often future operating model work is outsourced to consultants, and/or too little time is invested in really reflecting on imaginable future contexts. This may limit the value of the operating model produced.

The fifth thought – does the current visualisation of future operating models constrain thinking about them.   In my experience and looking at images of future operating models, a majority of them are linear (again the Deloitte ones exemplify).  Can, for example, a principle of an operating model ‘to encapsulate the complexities of a 21st century firm’, be expressed in a linear model comprising boxes and lines?  (A similar question to the one I ask  in organisation design workshops on whether an organisation chart can encapsulate the network of relationships and interdependencies amongst the people on it).   

This brings in the related question of is there an agreed definition of what an operating model is?  I wrote a blog a few years ago – Operating and other models –  that considers the confusion around the terms and what they encompass.  The words and labels used, like the images, act to shape/channel thinking.  Should we be thinking of a different vocabulary around concepts of operating models, future or current?

The sixth thought –  if you are thinking about future operating models, then a broader question is,  what are you thinking about future organisations?  For example, could you imagine your organisation becoming, or being upstaged by,  a decentralised autonomous organisation (DAO)?  Are you recognising  that the boundaries of your organisation are hard to define i.e. what’s in and what’s out of any future operating model.   For example, how might a future operating model change if people started to think about partners in place of suppliers?

The seventh thought – what is unknowable but imaginable that we risk not factoring in when, with hindsight, we should have?  Assuming an acceptance of the idea that the future is unknowable but not unimaginable, then it is possible to start including all manner of possibilities (perhaps stretching our thinking on ‘inclusion’ in all its forms?).  I have two pictures – one of a street in New York in 1903 which only shows horse drawn vehicles, the other of the same street 10 years later with no horses at all, only engine powered vehicles.  Could the 1903 future operating model designers have imagined that 1913 future? Maybe, or maybe not. A future operating model has to be able to flex to any emerging ‘to-be’, not a specific desired one.

Having had these thoughts, I’m wondering how to form a future operating model presentation. If my experience is anything to go by, the audience may well be expecting a practical ‘how to’ rather than a reflective experience.  So, with the seven thoughts above in mind, what is an alternative to the traditional future operating model  ‘how to’?   Let me know.


Organisation design: time changes understanding

‘Time changes understanding’ struck me when I read the phrase the other day, in Richard Mabey’s book The Cabaret of Plants. My third edition of a book on organisation design will be published in March 2022. Next month I am speaking to a group about this third edition.  Has time changed my understanding of organisation design?  I started to think on this. 

I fished out the first two editions to take a look.  Jumping out, as I flicked the first few pages of edition one was the example of the Miss Army Kit (which I was discussing as an example of product design for a specific audience).  It comes with ’15 must-have female emergency items’. At the time you could buy it in pink and purple.  It was gone in edition two!  (And is a discontinued line).

Time has changed my understanding of gender identification in the workforce, and how that may play out in organisation design. (See the article Redefining Gender at Work: how organisations are evolving).  

Time has also changed my understanding of other social/societal changes that shape design, including demographic changes, workplace expectations, diversity and inclusion questions, wage and reward differentials, and the meaning and value of work.   Thus, the third edition has discussions on diversity, in all its forms, threaded through the text with examples of several organisations’ approaches to diversity and designing. Looking at the indexes, ‘diversity’ does not appear in editions one and two but is there in edition three.  

Other macro trends reflect differently across the three editions.  If I take the acronym STEEPLE (which appears in all three editions) and covers trends related to social, technological, environmental, economic, political, legal and ethical, then I see a very different range of discussion under each, which reflects the way time changes understanding of the issues.   I’ve already mentioned societal trends so, moving on:

Technology, has its own entry in index of the first edition, but by the second edition had become so interwoven with organisational life that there is no specific indexed mention of it, neither in the third edition. But between the second and third editions technologies changed rapidly, as did my understanding of the way technology shapes organisations, for good and bad. This understanding cannot be static as advances keep going. Not in the third edition, but what would be in the fourth edition (no, this is not on the cards), is a discussion of metaverses.  Technology in the third edition appears in discussions of digital twins, technologies for remote and virtual working, software as a service (e.g. Salesforce, G Suite, cloud based Microsoft Office 365). None of these were mentioned in the first or second editions.

Take up of all of them has increased rapidly between the second and third editions, rendering significant design changes to the organisations. Designing risk mitigations as part of deployment of these services is a current weak point in design work. When the technologies go down, as Facebook’s did last week organisations can grind to a halt. (The same applies to the design of supply chains).   I’m now wondering how to mitigate the many risks associated with these types of technologies, including ransomware attacks, surveillance, hacking, and outages.

Environmental considerations have changed, and are changing, understanding of organisation design – think of the rise of B-corps in the last few years. One of the changes in the third edition is my replacement of ‘mission and vision’ with ‘purpose’, reflecting a shift in my understanding of organisational intent. 

Equally, thinking around physical workplace design is changing to accommodate reductions in environmental load related to commuting, resource usage, health and safety. Covid-19, for example, has accelerated thinking and action on touchless workplaces.  And just look around to see how many organisations are pledging to be ‘net zero’ (a phrase that makes an entry in the third edition). Think of all the design implications of this pledge.

Last week’s Economist warned of ‘stagflation’, calling it ‘a particularly thorny problem because it combines two ills—high inflation and weak growth—that do not normally go together.’  A couple of weeks earlier (on 21 September), and in relation to gas price rises, Reuters reported: “It is quite clear there is a growing sense of unease about the economic outlook as a growing number of companies look ahead to the prospect of rising costs.”   The third edition differs from the previous two in discussing macro-economic trends and the way organisations have to imagine them in advance, prepare for their possible eventuality and then respond to them if they occur.   

In the third edition, I have a completely re-written chapter on continuous design, and a completely new section on systems thinking. These two themes permeate the third edition, highlighting how time has changed my understanding of the need to shift focus from project-based organisation design to continuous organisation design done in the context of interlocking and interdependent systems.

Another way the third editions differs from the previous two, is in the discussions on politics. Gareth Morgan’s book ‘Images of Organisation’ has, as one of the eight metaphors, ‘organisations as political systems’, and I am increasingly of the view that organisations are political systems, working within broader political systems. (Look at this week’s announcement that Microsoft is pulling LinkedIn from China). Think at how LinkedIn’s design will be changing to accommodate its pull-out of China decision. 

 Recognising the power and pull of internal and external politics (with both a lower case and capital ‘p’) is something I have come to understand over time, and perhaps as a result of my years working in the UK Civil Service, as one of the fundamentals to factor into organisation design work. Designers are never working in a political vacuum and I pick this up in the third edition.

Changes to legal and regulatory frameworks also have a major impact on organisation design. For example, the UK’s Trade Act 2021 has impacted businesses and the way they are designed as has  the UK’s new immigration rules (effective from January 2021) or the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement. Again, the third edition pays more attention to the legal and regulatory systems that are material to the design of organisations than in previous editions. (One of the recommendations is that continuous organisation design work should always involve multi-disciplines including legal advisors/experts).

There is less in the third edition than I had room for on ethics in the workplace. But it is an aspect of design that needs close attention as it frequently involves dilemmas in which people have very different views. For example, is it ethical to insist on single source supply and then force the supplier into bankruptcy if demand for the item supplied drops? This example raises a design question related to the boundaries of the organisation. Is the supplier part of your organisation or not (in design terms), and for the supplier is your organisation part of their design?

I’ve outlined a few of the ways that time has changed my understanding of organisation design. Has it changed yours? How? Let me know.

Organisation Design: Linkages and boundaries (part 2) – cups of tea

In my blog last week, I mentioned the ‘cup of tea’ activity.  I mentioned it again in a workshop I facilitated during the week.   It’s an activity that prompts discussion on workflow, linkages and boundaries.  The participants asked for the instructions to run it themselves.  So here goes:

Intro:  An activity for groups of 4 or 5 people.  Ideally, have 3 or more groups so they can compare approaches.  It’s better done face to face.  You need lots of post notes and a marker pen for each participant.   Note:  it assumes that all participants have some familiarity with making a cup of tea.

Step 1.  Individual activity (no conferring). On post notes each person writes each step to take in making a cup of tea, from beginning to end.  They arrange the notes in order vertically as a workflow One action per post note, beginining with a verb e.g. Put water in kettle.   

Facilitator note: Do not answer questions about where should the process start or finish – the participants have to decide.

Step 2.  Within the group compare your process with other people’s.   Ask some questions – do the start points differ?  Where is the end point in each?  Are there different activities in the different process flows?  Do some people have different ingredients?  Are any cultural differences/conventions apparent? 

Note: I once did this activity with a group of people from India, China, UK and the flows were wildly different which caused great amusement.

Step 3. Agree amongst you one process flow, start to finish, of making a cup of tea.  (This can be one of the group member’s or a new one that combines ideas from the different group members).    

Facilitator note: When they have reached agreement, have a whole group discussion, on what they noticed in getting to the one agreed flow you hear things related to:  assumptions around what makes a good cup of tea, differences of opinion in where to start and where to finish the process,  order of activity in making the cup of tea, and so on.  Ask what participants are learning from this discussion?  E.g. is there one right way of making a cup of tea?  How easy is it to agree the start and end point of the process?  As group members are they being collaborative or competitive, are they aiming for consensus or consent, is a leader/dominant voice emerging, is everyone’s voice being heard?

Step 4. Post your group’s flow on a wall/flip chart so everyone can see.  Compare your flow with other groups’ flows.  What are the similarities, differences? What steps have they got in common?    

Facilitator note:  When participants have done this ask what they are learning from doing this comparison e.g. around alternative flows and orders of action, around common (or different) start and end points.  Around actions that might be redundant? Or overlap?

Step 5.   Of the 3 or more workflows on the wall, agree one as the ideal flow (agree some adjustments if appropriate).  All groups will then take this one to work further on. (From this point all groups are working on the same workflow, but still in their groups).

Step 6.  For one cup of tea, one person can (usually) deliver the whole process, in their own kitchen. NOTE this is not the case if the group decides the process begins with planting a tea plant.    But the activity now is to scale up the process. 

Imagine you have a coach party of 40 people arriving at your house and they all want a cup of tea immediately.  How will you scale up the process and make it customer centric (suppose some want sugar and others don’t or some want alternative milks to cow’s milk, etc).   

Facilitator note:  At the end of this step discuss with the group what they were discussing/their considerations e.g. speed, quality, customer service, skill of servers, etc.

In this step I’ve seen many possibilities emerge – drafting in servers who each make a cup of tea for one person, having one person take orders and another make tea, have one person putting bags in cups and others doing milk or sugar, etc.  making it easier to self-serve.  Full automation from vending machine …

Step 6. Now scale up to 400 cups of tea per half day – what are you thinking about now? 

Facilitator note:  it’s better not to give clues, but to save this for the post-step discussion.  E.g. will you need a milk specialist?  Do you have 400 cups – will you use disposable or wash them up?  If you have more than one person involved in making the tea, how do they hand over their bit of the process to the next person in the flow, what are the linkages, what are the boundaries of each person’s work – are they clear or not e.g. ‘I only do milk’.

Facilitator note:  When you start scaling up, considerations around purpose and values come into play, as well as expertise and skills sets, i.e. do you have a milk specialist or are all servers multiskilled in the tea making, what would make the tea making more meaningful as a job.  Where are the cups of tea going to? Are people coming to you for them, or are you distributing (as years ago when offices had people with trollies serving tea in china cups at your desk).   Facilitate a whole group discussion to uncover the different ways the small groups thought about doing this.

 Facilitator note: After step 6 you can scale up again e.g. to 4000 cups of tea or you can add in coffee – a roughly similar beverage i.e. main ingredient, water, milk (maybe), sugar (ditto).  I’ll go to adding in coffee.

Step 7. Now add in coffee, for 400 people, so you have two workflows going.  You have to deliver either tea or coffee a total of 800 times per half day.  What are your considerations?   

Facilitator note –again, it’s better not to give clues, but to save this for the post-step discussion.  E.g. Does your workforce do either tea or coffee, or are you going to have a workflow that blends the tea/coffee activity at points e.g. one water boiler for both tea and coffee, or one vending machine that does both (if your consideration is around outsourcing to automation), what skills do you need to keep things going – how are they rolled up into a job role.  How many people will you need?  Will they need a supervisor or manager or can they self-manage?

Facilitator note:  You may not have time for participants to develop another post note workflow.  I’ve found by this stage they can easily imagine the type of thing they would need to consider in adding another product line.

I’ve also found that everyone gets the idea that in design work, you look at the work first – what it is, what activities it comprises and the multiple ways the activities could be combined or segregated.  Once you know the detail of the work you can start thinking about roles and skills, structuring the people, and the boundaries and linkages between them.

 Learning points from this activity, include considering ways of

  • Eliminating fragmentation in workflows
  • Allowing for scaling up or down
  • Focusing the effort of the organization on the most critical work processes
  • Enhancing overall workflow within the organization
  • Directing the activities towards best achievement of strategic objectives
  • Making effective boundaries and linkages
  • Thinking about the customers e.g. would the flow and activity clustering be different if you had to offer 6 types of milk and 3 sizes of cup?
  • Thinking about the skills and roles needed
  • Making decisions about person or automation
  • etc.

What activities do you use to illustrate the value of looking at the work and work activities, before the structure (org chart) in organisation design?  Let me know.


Organisation Design: Boundaries and Linkages

Last week I was discussing boundaries and linkages with someone. She wanted info on them.  Digging into my files I found a guide on this I’d written a couple of years ago with a colleague (Judith Collins) that I’ve extracted from and adapted below.


One approach to organisation design recommends starting with the work rather than the people, asking the questions: What is the purpose of the organisation (why is it in business?). What is the business strategy that will deliver the ‘why’? What are the key work processes and activities necessary to deliver the purpose and strategy?

Having answered these questions, you then map the high-level work activities per process. The next step is to look across and within these to identify how the activities might best be clustered and those clusters eventually form the basis of a high-level organisation design.

This approach makes visible how inextricably linked much of the work is – it’s pretty easy to find reasons to put activity together into one team or unit. The hard part is being confident about why we are dividing/allocating work and work activities between teams.  In dividing/allocating the work between teams you are automatically creating a boundary. (Note: I use making a cup of tea exercise to illustrate and practice this. You scale up the process flow from one cup of tea, to forty, to four hundred to four thousand, add in coffee …)

Often boundaries and linkages develop almost by accident and sometimes boundaries are perceived rather than real. But given any organisation design is only as good as the design of the boundaries and linkages, it’s essential that they are thought about and designed in. Otherwise you risk unintended consequences e.g. activity duplicated, work process break-down, conflict over accountability, and so on.


A boundary occurs during a work flow where something is handed over, where accountability is split or you reach a decision point or a compliance requirement.  It denotes the edge of a role or responsibility. At a boundary something needs to happen for the work to be continued or completed. A “chuck it over the fence” approach doesn’t work.

You will always need boundaries e.g. between the work of units, teams and individuals. Having as few as makes sense and making the linkages between them effective and efficient will minimise handovers and double handling and (usually) help improve the customer experience.

Culture, power and politics may all impact the effectiveness of the boundaries. All can lead to different perceptions and assumptions about whether a boundary exists and the action that is taken in response. Thus, there should be understanding of and agreement to boundaries to ensure there aren’t any black holes for work to drop through. Note: boundaries may not be static. They may evolve over time as the work and the organisation changes.

The best way to identify boundaries is to use your workflow for the high-level design and process maps as you work up the detailed design. Number each boundary so you can discuss and record what linking mechanism you will use for each. This need not be too onerous as many of the linkages you need will already be in place and providing they don’t need to change in your new organisation design, you only need to confirm that they are still fit for purpose.

You can then focus on boundaries where you don’t already have linkages or where the linkage needs to change.  There’s more on boundaries in a useful article by Rob Cross et al. A bridge too far?  How boundary spanning networks drive organizational change and effectiveness.


A linkage is activity that enables work to flow across a boundary. In the book Organizational Linkages: Understanding the Productivity Paradox, the authors say, ‘One of the open systems principles is that ‘changes in one part of the larger system will have reverberating effects on other parts of the system.  The intensity of the reverberations depends on the closeness or tightness of the linkage between the changed element and other elements in the system. Thus, in loosely coupled systems, changes in one subsystem can be relatively isolated from the larger system. In tightly coupled systems, however, a small change in any subsystem will yield changes elsewhere in the system through reciprocating linkages. Landing a jet on the deck of an aircraft carrier is an example of a tightly coupled system. In this system the smallest deviations in speed of the ship, list of the ship, wind direction, speed of the jet, altitude of the approach, and so forth have great consequences for performance—the safe landing of the jet. Conversely, providing a professor in a university with a personal computer and word processing software may be very loosely linked to university performance, even if the professor is more “productive.” ‘

The graphic heading this piece, identifies six features of types of linking mechanism. The more formal mechanisms are normally more robust and bring greater prescription and control. But they are also more expensive to implement and maintain. So think about what type of linkage will most effectively span the boundaries, taking into account how critical each boundary or handover point is to the outcomes your organisation is seeking to achieve.

For any linkage to be effective there needs to be the resources and will to make it work. You can strengthen all linkages by social and cultural means, personal networks, interdepartmental events. Linkages can be weakened by personal or political agendas, assumptions, pre-conceptions, custom and practice.

Eleven Questions about Linkages and Enablers

  • Do you know where all your boundaries are?
  • Is the boundary recognised by all the parties?
  • Are the boundaries creating a black hole, gap, or insurmountable barriers?
  • Where there is currently a boundary do you need to remove it, leave it, or change it?
  • Where on the features scale – see graphic (high/low) do your linkages need to be?
  • Is the boundary/linkage agreed and workable by all parties?
  • Is the linkage proportionate in terms of effort and cost of both implementing and maintaining it?
  • Should the boundary/linkage have a shelf life?
  • Have your boundaries/linkages got the support of all the parties involved?
  • How can you foster social connection to enable the boundaries/linkages to work?
  • Are you designing external boundaries/linkages e.g. with suppliers as well as internal boundaries/linkages?

How often do you review boundaries and linkages in your organisation?  Let me know.