Organisation Design: Blog # 862, pandemic Q & A, and pressing pause

Coming in an email to me this week were some questions which the writer wanted me to answer.  She was interested in what I would say to c-suite execs. She asked:

  • How is the pandemic affecting how organisations should be designed?
  • What advice would you give to enlightened organisations on how to improve organisation design?
  • How important is company culture in all of this?
  • Can you give a real-world example of a company getting it right? Any lessons other could use from this case study?
  • Is there any other advice you would give execs about helping to create an organisation and a workforce that will emerge even stronger once the pandemic ebbs away? And what are the biggest challenges?

The thing was that she wanted a total of 250 words in response.  Having just written a whole book (around 100k words) that aims to answer these questions, I was reminded of my long-ago manager’s request that when I was presenting my PhD research to the exec team, who had sponsored it, that I reduce the thesis to a one-page graphic. 

However, I did manage to reduce my thesis to a one-page graphic so, undaunted, I will have a go at summarising the book/answering the questions.  (The book is coming out on 13 January and is available on pre-order, Designing Organisations, why it matters and ways to do it well.)

My final para this week is on my decision to press pause on this blog.


Organisation design in pandemic times

Since 23 March 2020 (when the UK went into the first of the pandemic response lockdowns), it’s become clearer that exec teams who:

  • are prepared to challenge their assumptions on their strategy, business model and operating model.  (See my blog Future Operating Models)
  • keep a clear mind on what aspects of their business remain stable and what can be rapidly changed (See my blog Designing Resilience)
  • have good data – both quantitative and qualitative – on which to make decisions (See my blog on Data and Complexity)

have been more likely to demonstrate the resilience needed to weather the on-going effects of the pandemic. Leaders of pandemic resilient organisations have made bold decisions – shifting their business strategy, adjusting their business and operating models and continuously adjusting aspects of their organisation design, including systems, policies, and authorities.  

The stories of two UK retailers, John Lewis and Next provide good examples in their sector of design  responses.  ‘Clothing retailer Next has grown by developing its in-house brands, expanding overseas and opening up its website, warehouses and delivery services to brands that struggled on their own’, while John Lewis has closed stores, grown its online sales from 40 per cent pre-pandemic to 75 per cent by October 2021. By 2030, Sharon White, John Lewis’s chair, wants the organisation to take 40 per cent of its profits from new areas and is considering offering homes, financial and wraparound services.

It’s too early to say whether these two organisations will be successful over the next decade, but compared with retailers Debenhams, Topshop and House of Fraser, who have collapsed, both John Lewis and Next, are indicating ways that they are changing their designs as a pandemic response.  They both have executive teams with the attributes mentioned earlier (to challenge assumptions, keep a clear mind, draw on good data).  These attributes enable executives to pick up on adjacent possibilities, take some calculated risks (after testing and consultations), and move swiftly.   

There are many examples of organisations in other sectors demonstrating this same basket of attributes and actions, who are doing well in redesigning their organisations – Shopify, Netflix, Zoom, Paypal, Peloton, Wayfair – but their ability to capitalise on these depends, to some extent on the processes, policies, technologies and cultures that were in place at the start of the pandemic.  The RSA offers a useful Future Change Framework for organisations to reflect on their design responses to the pandemic, giving some ideas on how they might continue to adapt. (See blog image).

Turning to cultures – usually there are many cultures in a single organisation – they change as broader societal norms change.  As well as the pandemic, the last couple of years have seen accelerating conversations and actions around race and ethnicity, mental health and well-being, gender, labour movements, conditions of employment, sustainability, environmental issues, and so on.   All of these have an impact on an organisation’s design.  As much as the pandemic these issues have contributed, and continue to contribute to organisational redesigns.   Alertness to societal trends and pre-occupations, noticing how these are reported, disseminated and talked about and to have considered conversations on how, when, or if, to respond should be high on every executives’ agenda. 

Thinking the pandemic will ebb away, is probably a mistake, because it conjures up an image of a more stable and tranquil context than that we have been experiencing.   The pandemic may continue and/or may be replaced or supplemented by different turbulences – we are already seeing rare metals shortages, supply chain vulnerabilities, geo-political tensions, bio-diversity loss.  And we are simultaneously seeing massive strides in quantum computing, bio/health sciences, AI and robotics, etc.  Probably the biggest challenge for organisation designers/executive teams is to differentiate the signal from the noise (see a review of Nate Silver’s book on the topic), and to make sound judgements on which to respond to (and why).

[Ed: you failed on 250 words. This is 650]


Pressing pause

This is my #862 blog on organisation design.  My first was posted on 23 September 2008.   I have decided that this is my last one for now.  I am pressing pause.   I do not know if or when I will return to this blog but I will leave it open and available for people to browse.   Someone asked me why I am not continuing to the nine hundredth one, and I considered that idea but have still opted for new year, fresh start.

My thanks to all those readers, commentators, friends, colleagues, and random strangers who have, over the years, triggered some thought that has turned into a post.   I’ve found the writing process wonderful – a continuous learning, thinking, and researching on a topic I am passionate about.  I will continue writing with the same enjoyment and discipline that this blog has offered – but as I explore new directions, I’m guessing new writings will emerge from them.    All the best for 2022.  May your cup always be full.

Organisation design: Odile the organisation designer, part 4

The third part of the story of Odile the organisation designer, saw her 100 days into her role of Organisation Design Lead at Intersection Railways.  She was presenting her strategy for developing an organisational design movement, to bridge the confusing gaps between the various design-related specialisms present in the organisation.  Delivery of her strategy included developing a design taxonomy, getting a minimum viable dataset for all designers to access, rethinking the recently introduced design governance approach and raising awareness of systems thinking and complexity science. 

Eighteen months later:  Odile is talking with her mentor, Abeo Okigbo, about the highs and lows, successes and failures, of her time, so far, in Intersection Railways.  Odile is preparing for her last monthly performance discussion with her manager, Farzin Ahmadi, Group HR Director.  It’s going to be a milestone meeting as she is moving reporting lines, saying farewell to Farzin. From Monday she’ll be reporting to Bonnie Wang, recently appointed Director Corporate Strategy Design and Delivery. 

Abeo:  First off, how are you feeling about moving reporting lines? 

Odile:  Well, I’ve got mixed feelings.  Farzin has been great at helping me integrate into Intersection Railways.  I recently read a blog on the 8 critical skills of effective design leaders  and although he isn’t a specialist designer, he has all these skills and he instinctively ‘gets design’.  This has really paved the way for my successes so far.   

Bonnie is a fairly unknown quantity to me.  She’s still finding her feet, having joined the Railway four months ago, and to a newly created role.  She’s led several meetings I’ve been at, and I’ve been reassured by her firm view, reflected in her role title, that successful strategy delivery requires integrated design approaches.  I gave her Richard Buchanan’s classic article Wicked Problems in Design Thinking – exploring integration of design related specialisms – which she actually read!  She seems personable and is interested in ramping up the work that we’ve been doing in design since I joined. Although the signs are good so far, I’m wondering if she will manage the transition to the leadership team and gain peer trust and support.

Abeo:  Have you thought that your work may have played a part in Intersection Railways creating this new role of Strategy Design and Delivery?  You’ve had quite an impact on the Sleeper Service and App’s success.  From what I’ve heard, your idea to use it as a type of ‘proof of concept’ has made the point that integrated design approaches will help deliver a strategy.   

I hear, too, that Bonnie is proposing the job family ‘Designer’, which all related design jobs will align to.  You will be titled Designer: Organisation. Earnestine becomes Designer: Enterprise Architecture. Severin becomes Designer: Service. Some of Hans’s team become Designer: Graphics, etc. and the whole Design job family comes within her sphere of accountability, within the new design governance framework.  I think that’s a sign of your influence around creating a design movement.

Odile: Oh, maybe you’ve got a point – it’s often difficult to track how big things emerge from a small disturbance.  Remember Ray Bradbury’s short story, The Sound of Thunder? It pre-dated the ‘butterfly effect’ theory within complexity science, but illustrates it pretty well.  I think my insistence on general awareness of complexity science is starting to catch on.  I really enjoyed the presentation showing the links between our planned strategy and the necessity to simultaneously be able to respond to emergent strategy (NOTE: see Graphic above and article explaining it here)

My other successes?  Well, I’ve been working hard with the Learning and Development Teams and it’s great to have our first cohort going through the now ODC accredited Design Practitioner programme.  We’ve attracted a range of people representing different design specialisms into it. And the complexity science awareness sessions are going well.

The design movement is getting rooted under the common purpose of ‘Developing Collaborative Design’ with Slack channels, comms, marketing, events, and peer coaching, which sounds impressive but it’s only in its infancy so far.

What it has managed to do is generate collective interest in a design taxonomy, though we’re stumbling around trying to find a way forward on this.  Some people are interested in concepts like a pattern language, based on Takashi Iba’s work. Others want to go down a business capability route (if only we could define what a capability is).  Others are interested in a methodology like The Milky Way. And others are vested in using a common graphical language for design.  There’s a mishmash of view and opinions being aired.

The Sleeper Service and App programme is back on track and beginning to ramp up successes to the joy of the Executive. The Design: UX team must take a lot of credit for this, but have been well supported by other design specialisms.  And our ability now to get good operational data. I guess the minimum viable data set is there.

Abeo:  Great work, congratulations.   Where are you now?

Odile:  Good question.  I’m using the simple but powerful tool What, So What, Now What to reflect on what’s happened since I joined and plan next steps.  It’s been a roller coaster 18 months, and it hasn’t all been rosy.  I’ve had some dark moments, but I don’t think I’m facing 344 single point failures, as the James Webb Space Telescope launch is.  However, I am noticing several potential issues.  For example:

Much of the work of generating and sustaining the design movement is down to my efforts as, essentially a type of ‘community manager’.  I worry that if I go, then that community goes.   I’m about to start lobbying, and get approval for, a Design Community Manager role which may help the sustainability of the design movement.

The support systems for the concept of a Design job family are flimsy though growing: job titles are one thing, but we need to develop pay and reward systems, career routes, and so on to create a sustaining infrastructure.  Intersection Railways is traditional on this: promoting people out of technical roles into management, rather than having parallel tracks (of equal status and perceived value) of technical and managerial progression.

It’s very hard to get data on the different design specialists’ contribution to the Value Delivery Chain.  We’re trying to do it on the Sleeper Service and App:  it’s demanding and difficult to get to something, including measures, that people will understand.   If we fail on this, we may fail on the goal of uniting the design specialists in anything more than job titles.  We must show how the additive value of collaboration amongst the various designers contributes to effective planned and emergent strategy delivery. 

And there are other risks that I’m circling. The leadership team are drawn to ‘flavours of the month’.  We’ve managed to keep design highish on the agenda but you never know when a new something will grab them.  More importantly, they’re operating in a business context which is extremely volatile.  Notice how the successive waves of Covid-19 are hitting passenger numbers.  Naturally, attending to this is a priority, which may mean that design may drop off their radar.

My plan, following this conversation, is to develop a summary of my progress over the last 18 months with a forward look on what I plan to do (under Bonnie’s management) in the coming months.  Thanks for helping me firm up my thinking. I’m feeling challenged but excited about the possibilities.


What would be on your forward look if you were Odile?  Let me know.


  • Odile the organisation designer,  part 1
  • Odile the organisation designer,  part 2
  • Odile the organisation designer, part 3

Register for a webinar on Odile the organisation designer, February 23 2022,  here  (and, on this link, you can also register for others in the series all 100% live and free!)

The right word

‘After the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers on 11th September 2001 Imtiaz Dharker wrote the poem, “The Right Word”. In it she explores issues of language and identity; how we see and label other people, and how those people may see and label themselves.’

The poem came to mind during the week.  I was with a group of senior leaders, talking about organisation design.  They seemed to me to be frustrated by their organisation’s systems and processes (including the 9-box grid performance management system), the fact that their managers – the grade above – couldn’t contemplate failure or the idea of learning from it, the difficulties of making a decision at the right level – approval had to be granted by someone often with no immediate knowledge of the situation, the impossibility of influencing ‘the system’ to work differently, the use of hierarchical indicators (job titles, access to things, etc) to ‘prove’ value, status, and authority ….,  the many constraints around what they could design, the endurance of legacy practices, the cultural deference to people more senior in the hierarchy.  It was a weighty list. 

I’ve been in this sort of discussion many times, and have written on aspects of all of them, offering resources and suggestions. As examples, I have written blogs on: 

Frustration, 6 July 2015. In this piece, I note that: ‘A quick scan of the tips and guidance focus on handling the frustrating situation we’re in dwell on dealing with our frustration rather than trying to change the frustrating situation itself’.  I propose that,  ‘In any organisation there are numerous system, process, and technology frustrations that could be designed out which would then leave us less stressed (maybe)’.  However, in the event we are unsuccessful in designing out the organisational frustrations, I offer, in the blog, some resources on how to deal with our personal frustration:  3 Easy Ways to Cope With Frustration (with pictures), 4 Tips to Deal With Frustrating People , Frustration – 8 Ways to Deal With It, 10 Tips To Overcome Frustration!, and 33 Ways To Overcome Frustration.

The 9-box grid – ‘What box are you in?’ October 5 2015.  In this piece, I observe: ‘that this 9-box categorisation of people causes a lot of all-round angst, takes up inordinate amounts of time, is based on rather unclear definitions of ‘potential’ and indeed of ‘performance’, runs the risk of marginalising people who are different from the ‘norm’, and doesn’t result in outcomes that increase an organisation’s talent pool or even performance and productivity.’  Again there are resources on this topic – some seeing some value in the 9-box grid, others decrying it.

My view of 9-box-grid type categorisation is taken up in another blog ‘The dangers of categorical thinking’ October 21 2019.  I lifted the title of the blog from an HBR article The Dangers of Categorical Thinking, by Bart de Langhe and Philip Fernbach.  The authors argue that ‘Categories lead to a fixed worldview. They give us a sense that this is how things are, rather than how someone decided to organise the world. John Maynard Keynes articulated the point beautifully. “The difficulty lies, not in the new ideas,” he wrote, “but in escaping from the old ones.”

They go on to suggest categorising ‘can lead you to compress the members of a category, treating them as if they were more alike than they are; amplify differences between members of different categories; discriminate, favoring certain categories over others; and fossilize, treating the categorical structure you’ve imposed as if it were static.’  At that point in the blog, I ask myself if these four dangers of categorising are, themselves, categories? However …

Failure:  I have two blogs on this topic Failure as a helpful form of feedback February 20 2017, and Learning from Failure August 30 2010. In the first of these I say, ‘It takes formal systems, processes and policies, that remove the individual and collective fear of failure. Without these, in many organisations, failure is stigmatised. In his book, Black Box Thinking, Matthew Syed explores this tendency. One of the book’s reviewers summarised: ‘the world comes down hard on those who are deemed failures. The desire to avoid such opprobrium prompts people to cover up mistakes, argues Syed.  …  If you are hearing organisational phrases on the lines of ‘it’s safe to challenge’, or ‘we learn from failure’ or ‘we tolerate mistakes’ are you sure that you have the attitudes, infrastructures and mechanisms in place to make it so? It may be worth checking.’ 

In the second (Learning from Failure), I discuss three articles and conclude by saying ‘Summing up the three pieces they all make the same three points. To learn from errors:

  • Ask why mistakes occur and look at close calls – where mistakes nearly occur but are headed off (as in near mid-air collisions).
  • Encourage people to report errors and close calls – which they tend not to for fear of humiliation, punishment and retaliation. Bagian (author of one of the articles I mention) encourages reporting in a very specific way by framing what an error or close call is and why it is of organisational value to be interested in it.
  • Be open about things that go wrong and be willing to discuss them, analyse the situation in which they occurred, and provide people with the information and tools to do things differently in the future.’

With the group I was with last week, voicing the notion that I was hearing frustration,  I mentioned Corporate Rebels, and Rebels at Work and asked the group what they were actually doing, or could do to change or challenge the status quo. 

I said that in the current group, there were 15 or so senior leaders. I recalled that I’ve worked with that particular organisation over several years – meeting maybe 250 leaders taking the leadership programme (that my session was part of). I reflected that this was a sizeable pool of people who, if they chose, could collectively form a movement that worked to address the issues they found frustrating. 

(I didn’t ask, but have often wondered, and not just with the people in this organisation, what makes people who have leadership power, feel powerless to stand up and start to make the difference they would like to see).

Hearing my reflection, one of them jokingly asked if I was inciting them to rebel. They seemed to toy with this idea, reluctant to explore the possibilities of pushing collectively for change. And were even less prone to accept the word ‘rebel’.   (In other forums and meetings when I’ve suggested ‘encouraging rebels’, there’s been a similar response to the word rebel). 

However, think about rebels. They are often brave, usefully challenging, learn from failure, bring fresh perspectives, work collaboratively to a common purpose, … 

I think we need organisational rebels to help design better organisations – but I accept that the word itself may not convey their inherent (and necessary?) value, nor encourage a critical mass of people/leaders to be rebels.  As I reflected on the session, I struggled to find another word for ‘rebel’ and the poem I refer to at the start came to mind. 

If we go along with the view that organisations need people brave enough to provide critical examination of practices, systems, processes, norms, etc. and demonstrate the leadership to change those aspects not working, outdated, or contradictory to good work, then how would we describe such people? Can we do so without categorising or labelling them? What is the right word (or words)? Does it take more than the right word(s) to encourage them to take action? Let me know.

(PS see also my blogs Hostile Organisation Design, Designing Brave, and Leadership is a quality not a grade)

Additional point:  My book Designing organisations: why it matters and ways to do it well is coming out on 13 January and available for pre-order now.

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.