Progress review


Regular progress reviews are something I advocate in organisation design work.  Applying this advocacy to myself this week’s blog is a report on how the writing of the third edition of my book, Guide to Organisation Design is coming along.   I’ve used a simple template ABCD that I use on projects – usually as weekly report. But today’s is a longer time frame, covering the 9 weeks from 1 January.


Well in quantitative measures I’ve now written, and submitted to the editor five (of nine) chapters. From experience I know that chapter submission is not the end but the beginning of a whole process of re-drafting, re-thinking, switching things around and so on.  But I’m trying not to think about that too much.  My focus is on getting all nine chapters written.

The schedule that I prepared last November – for chapter completion and blog posting – I have amended in the light of slower progress than I anticipated.  I was originally planning to have chapter 6 completed by the end of February but have not got to that – I’m about a third of the way through it right now.  I start re-writing each chapter with optimism that it doesn’t need much work, just ‘tweaking’.  Not the case.  Each chapter has seen major changes to the second edition chapter.   Amending the schedule, I think is an achievement (Ed: Really, why !!??) – reflecting the reality of other stuff going on in my life.  I think I’ll still make the end-May deadline assuming sticking to the new schedule and helped by a project flow chart my daughter sent me – see the accompanying graphic.

A lovely group achievement is maintaining the alternate week discipline of a 30-minute meeting with the five people helping me think through the book.  For me, it’s a fantastic, energising, learning, fun discussion, each of the six of us contributing from various angles, and examplifying one of my messages about the value of diverse views.

The blog posting of extracts and commentary feels like an achievement in that there has been a posting each week.  Writing the blogs feels less like a distraction and more like a focus for refining my thinking and a related achievement, not mine though, is that it generates really helpful discussion/comments from readers.   (More on this in next paras).


Hmm, what is the benefit in writing a book?  The Project Management Institute defines benefits as ‘Value that is created for the project sponsor or beneficiary as a result of the successful completion of a project’.   For me, first it is an opportunity to really think about how I practice organisation design, what it is, why it has that label, are organisations designable, what is its value … ?  (I can hear voices saying, ‘Stop over-thinking, just get on with it’). Second, it’s an opportunity to learn from the comments and additional sources of information people are posting on the blogs. Thanks you readers for that.   I had to buy the book Jim Stockmal referenced, Orbiting the Giant Hairball. I loved the title.  It reminded me of another book I enjoy ‘Sacred Cows Make The Best Burgers’  – a good design principle to consider.

In ‘book-as-project’ terms the publisher, I guess, is the project sponsor, and the beneficiaries are the readers of the final book.  My task as ‘project manager’ is to ensure ‘benefits realisation management’ i.e. the ‘Collective set of processes and practices for identifying benefits and aligning them with formal strategy, ensuring benefits are realized as project implementation progresses and finishes, and that the benefits are sustainable—and sustained—after project implementation is complete’.

So, the processes and practices of blog posting, collaborative working with the book group, encouraging myself to write something everyday, and saying ‘no’ to other stuff coming my way are ways of aligning with the strategy of ‘get the book written’.  I think these various processes and practices are contributory to benefits realisation as the book progresses.   They are honing my thinking and giving rise to quite a different take on organisation design from the current second edition.  From this, I’m hoping that the benefits to readers will be sustainable in the next few years.  Sidebar: I make an exception on saying ‘no’ to extra  grandchild care i.e. beyond what we’ve agreed, as I learn a lot from being with a 3-year old.  The jelly-snake negotiation I got involved in the other day required employing tactics that may be applicable to leaders at impasse as each holds their own ground.


Concerns are several:

  • Those reading the extracts/blogs don’t have a full map of the book – the chapters, the preface, the approach, the target audience, etc. So, comments on what I’m posting relate only to the extract.  I wonder if it would be helpful to give more info on the map – the chapters, the rationale, my thinking/’philosophy’ of organisation design, and also the territory that the book covers, otherwise the comments feel a bit like the story of the blind men and the elephant.  (But see above on benefits).
  • Readers of the blog post seem to be in the field of organisation design/development/systems but those are not the target audience. The target audience is organisational leaders and line managers who reach for an organisation chart when trying to solve an organisational issue/opportunity.
  • The swiftness of the context change makes it hard to position the book for a shelf-life of 3 – 5 years. Every time I give an example of an organisation a couple of weeks later the example becomes out of date.
  • The examples are skewed towards well-known large private-sector organisations – where are the SME’s,  the big players in smaller countries, the non-profits, the governments, etc. The well-known examples are often not generalisable e.g. not every organisation can, or should, copy the Spotify model (which in any event has come in for criticism).

 Do next week

Doing next (this) week is Chapter 6, on measurement,  I’ve started work on it – the article by Toby Lowe ‘Made to Measure’ stimulated my thinking, as did the video ‘Quantify the Un-quantifiable’.  I’ll also be following up on some of the comments and taking them into consideration as I both review the written chapters and write the subsequent ones.

Additionally, I’ll be keeping my eyes peeled for good organisational examples to illustrate points made in coming chapters. I keep a running list of useful ideas, articles (popular and research), quotes, references, and so on.

And, I’ll be continuing discussions with people about the chapters.  (The four left to write are Measurement, Comms and Engagement, Leadership & Organisation Design, Culture).  The fifth chapter, just completed, ‘Continuous Design’, I’ll be selecting an extract from for next week’s blog.

Project based organisation design

Project phasesJPG

Continuing the alternate week pattern of posting chapter extracts from the forthcoming third edition of my book “Guide to Organisation Design,” this week’s extract is from Chapter 4, “Project-based organisation design.” Next week will be a discussion of this chapter.

Extract from Chapter 4

Designs that effectively deliver desired business results do not just happen.  They are the outcome of deliberate attention involving:

  • Assessing the context, problems and opportunities confronting the organisation and its need for a design change.
  • Being clear about the current and proposed design purpose and desired outcomes.
  • Getting support for any OD work so that the design process runs smoothly (as far as is possible).
  • Tracking the progress of design activity against appropriate measures that enable corrective action to be taken if there are signs of it not achieving the intended outcomes.
  • Staying alert to clues, anecdotes and chat about the organisation’s design and its effectiveness.
  • Bearing in mind the constant organisational flux and change – which is running simultaneously with any planned design change, for example, a merger or an Initial Public Offering (IPO).

Deliberate organisation design (OD) takes two forms, project and continuous, as the information in the John Lewis Partnership (a brand of high-end department stores operating throughout Great Britain) 2018 Annual Report illustrates.  During that year the organisation saw a greater level of internal change than at any time in over a decade contending with what it described as Brexit-fuelled inflation, the extra costs of investing in IT, and having to cut prices because of widespread discounting by competitor retailers.  These market and context conditions led to a profits slump and workforce redundancies.  However, along-side these ongoing challenges requiring a range of OD responses, John Lewis Partnership continued with shop investment plans, completing 127 projects of varying scale in Waitrose shops and 91 projects in John Lewis shops.[1]

Project design is usually undertaken to deliver a specified outcome by a given date.  For example, the 31st December 2020 was a significant date for UK and EU businesses as it marked the end of the transition Brexit period (when the UK left the EU).  From that date UK businesses had to be ready to follow new rules on exports, imports, tariffs, data and hiring.

The Confederation for British Industry (CBI) surveying member organisations in 2018, in the lead up to Brexit, found that the majority of businesses were treating it as a major and significant formal project, with the related governance to oversee their design-for-exit planning and management of preparations.

Project-based OD uses project management approaches, protocols and conventions as provided by, for example, the Project Management Institute.[2]    Continuous OD is less project based and more iterative and emergent.  This chapter discusses project based OD and Chapter 5 discusses continuous OD.

In practice, most large organisations are doing project organisation design and continuous organisation design simultaneously, and as the 2020 pandemic has shown, the need for having the organisational capabilities to do both effectively is critical.

As an example, Just Eat was formed in February 2020 a merger of Just Eat and, Just Eat was launched in Copenhagen in 2001. was founded in Holland in 2000 by Jitse Groen, now chief executive of the new company.

In June 2020 Just Eat Takeaway announced an agreement to acquire Grubhub.  At the time of writing, the close date of the deal (agreed by Just Eat Takeaway shareholders) is not yet known, but expected to be in the first half 2021, pending approval from regulators and Grubhub shareholders.  This acquisition will create the world’s largest online food delivery company outside of China. This acquisition requires rigorous project management capability to ensure the acquisition is finalised effectively on the agreed date.

At the same time as initiating this acquisition, Just Eat Takeaway saw its revenue jump 44 per cent in the first half of 2020 as consumers ordered food at home while restaurants closed during lockdown.[3]

CEO, Jitse Groen talks about the continuous design needed to respond to changes.   in consumer ordering patterns.  For example, during the early summer of 2020 Just Eat Takeaway reported a sharp rise in demand for breakfast and lunch as consumers adjusted to being in lockdown, while the hot weather boosted orders of Greek, Turkish and Thai food as well as ice cream.  Vegetarian and vegan options also increased, requiring delivery changes, signing up new vendors and so on.[4]

Additionally, reacting to ‘winds of change’ about the gig economy the UK part of the organisation announced a move away from a free-lance model of delivery to an employed model. Andrew Kenny, EVP, Managing Director UK, said: “In the UK, the incumbent model is primarily a contractor model. For us this makes couriers an integral part of our offering. It is a big step forward.” [5]

These responses to increased and different consumer ordering patterns, and society’s feelings about the gig economy are examples of the type of ongoing pressures and opportunities that effective organisations respond to by developing and using a well-honed continuous design capability alongside their project based design capability.

Reflective questions: How necessary is it for large organisations to have both project management and continuous design capability?  Why/why not?

Being able to keep an OD project to budget and schedule depends on many factors, including the business purpose and stability of strategy, the operating model, the scope and scale of the design, the number of third parties involved, e.g. platform providers[6], the amount and type of continuous OD going on, and the planning and implementation techniques used.  Thus, a merger with a specific close of deal date may get to the point necessary to close the deal on time, and yet have a further phase of the project (or start a new project) to see through the detailed integration.

Whatever type of end-date project, there is a consistent sequence of activity and a number of identifiable phases to it.  The number of phases may vary.  Figure 4.1, [not shown in this blog] for example, shows three phases for an M & A project, while the waterfall and design thinking methods discussed in Chapter 2 both have five high-level phases, and the agile approach has four.

The phasing suggested for OD projects is a 6 phase one shown in Figure 4.2.  [see accompanying graphic]. This phasing recognises that OD projects often begin with an OD consultant being invited to come and discusses an organisational issue or opportunity that a leader or leadership team feels may need a new design or a redesign.  Hence the first phase is entry and contracting, that is meeting with the person commissioning the project and agreeing the contract for the work.






[6] When adopting platform business models the operating model and the organisation running it are by definition beyond the boundary of the legal entity running the platform. All the internal/external, inside-out/outside-in, control/influence discussion is being challenged by this development.

Organisational Alignment


Last week I posted an extract from Chapter 3 Organisational Structures of the third edition of the book I am writing.  At two points in the chapter I use the word ‘alignment’ as follows:

‘They (Medium) found, however that it was difficult to coordinate efforts at scale – any initiatives, which required coordination across functions took time and effort to gain alignment.’

‘With this and the organisation values in mind, they consulted their team members and drafted a design and implementation plan that ensured alignment of all the organisational elements and supported the collaborative principles on which ATD was founded.’

I’ve also used the word ‘alignment’ twice in Chapter 1 and once in Chapter 2.  Chapter 4, which I’ll be sharing an extract from next week, also has two mentions of ‘alignment’.  I’m not sure yet how many times I’ll use the word ‘alignment’ in chapters 5 – 9, but I’m now on high alert to it.

I’m on high alert because Jim Shillady, one of the book group members I’m working with, made the point that:  ‘There are a couple of places in the chapter – more in the book generally- where we ask people either to align this with that or to check that two or more things are aligned.  This always makes me wonder how we would answer those readers who respond by asking ‘how do we align?’ or ‘how can we tell when we are aligned’?

Thus, last Thursday, at our bi-weekly meeting, we discussed these questions and the discussion is still going strong, now via email.

Alignment is a frequently used word in organisation design and Jim asks whether it needs more explanation than the general understanding of it – that things need to be running in sync.  An analogy is wheel alignment on a vehicle: vehicle owners know that hitting a pothole or kerb can put the wheels out of alignment resulting in excessive wear to tyres and problems with the steering or suspension.  They regularly check the alignment of the wheels.

An HBR article, authored by Jonathan Trevor and Barry Varcoe,  How Aligned is your Organization,  notes that ‘Most executives today know their enterprises should be aligned. They know their strategies, organizational capabilities, resources, and management systems should all be arranged to support the enterprise’s purpose.’

The article describes alignment as being a ‘tightly managed enterprise value chain that connects an enterprise’s purpose (what we do and why we do it) to its business strategy (what we are trying to do to fulfil our purpose), organizational capability (what we need to be good at), resource architecture (what makes us good), and, finally, management systems (what delivers the performance we need).’  They cite McDonald’s as being an example of a well aligned organisation.

Organisational alignment is defined and looked at in other ways, apart from through the value chain.  For example, strategic alignment is discussed in a bizzdesign blog describing it as ‘the ability to create a fit or synergy between the position of the organization within the environment and the design of the appropriate business processes, resources and capabilities to support the execution.

Similarly, a research article, Competing Perspectives on the Link Between Strategic Information Technology Alignment and Organizational Agility: Insights from a Mediation Model on the links between IT alignment and organisational agility (using the value chain as a generic outline of the processes in a firm) reports, ‘Our research reveals that alignment is a potent source of value and worthy of the priority status consistently afforded it by top executives.’

Jonathon Trevor co-author of the HBR article mentioned earlier has a long, but worth listening to, webinar ‘How to Lead Strategic Alignment‘, where he points out, “We know that the best aligned enterprises are also the highest performing enterprises—the most change ready, and the most resilient. We must therefore be developing within our corporations, the leadership capabilities required to achieve that strategic alignment, as a matter of urgency.’

So, at this point it seems fair to say that organisational alignment, i.e. having all the elements in sync, is ‘a good thing’?   However, that doesn’t help much with how do we align and how will we know that we are aligned?

On ‘how do we align?’, reading the research article, Competing Perspectives …,  just mentioned, I wondered whether focusing on IT as the ‘spine’ of alignment activity might act to impel other organisational elements towards alignment.  (This article  has a useful  illustrative table on where IT can align to business strategy in 5 business processes).

As started to amble down this path of thinking, I came across another article discussing product aligned v capability aligned organisation design  with the author, Nick Tune, discussing the pros and cons of each in some detail and yet ending up being dissatisfied by the distinction, concluding, ‘how do we actually find the perfect boundaries? I’m still working on that.’

And then I found an interesting ‘how to ‘ suggestion from Chris McDermott  on mapping alignment, including the chain of social practices and the quality of the relationships between them.  This comes closer to the discussion we, the book work group, were having.  This ‘how to design alignment’ is still being pursued by us, but as it currently stands (thanks to Jim Shillady and Giles Slinger for working more on it) we are discussing that alignment is brought about by designing:

  • Alignment in construction: hard design elements such as processes, information flow, metrics, role descriptions, team structures, incentives
  • Alignment in current reality: the shared understanding of the complex reality on the ground – how things are really being done now
  • Alignment in orientation: a common compass point or set of values, purpose, culture
  • Alignment in how construction, reality and orientation will be if we succeed in creating (designing) necessary changes

There is a model and there may be a checklist or other tool(s) to go with these four points.

The final question ‘How will we know we are aligned?’ led to a discussion on two approaches and we advise doing both. First is the technocratic/data driven approach where you focus on the hard design elements and see where there are disconnects, or gaps, or misalignments.  I’ve often used a radar chart as a tool to aid this activity.

As an example of the technocratic, an alignment disconnect that I frequently come across is a performance management and reward system designed to foster individual competitive performance with a value around ‘one-team’ and ‘collaboration’.  Another is a desire for a ‘seamless customer journey’, but one where you find the customer journeys through multiple handover points that require them to repeat information just given.

The second approach to finding out if an organisation is aligned is the human signal detection approach where you ask the question ‘What about the alignment of the design do you feel uneasy about?’  Or ‘What do we need to discuss further about this’.  This plays to more to instinct, intuition and experience and is a helpful complement to the more technocratic/data driven approach – in essence you are getting a quantitative and a qualitative view of alignment.

In discussing alignment I began to wonder whether constantly aiming for it – which is necessary as things change so rapidly – is really continuous design.   I’ll be developing this idea (or not!) in Chapter 5 which is on continuous design.

What’s your view of what alignment is, how to design an aligned organisation and how you know when you have one?

Questions to ask about structures

Continuing my plan to give an extract from a chapter of the to-be-published third edition of the Guide to Organisation design, this week’s extract is from chapter 3 Organisational Structures. Next week I’ll pick up on the discussions the group I’m working with have had on organisational structures.  NOTE that in the book I’ve equated structures with organisation charts as this is what people seem to do.  But there are other views on what organisational structures are.  See my blog on this.  


Starting with the structure is not the best way to do OD but asking a range of questions about structures helps in making sensible structural decisions when the time comes in the design process.   Useful questions include:


  • How often and how much restructuring is necessary to keep ahead of competitors?
  • What structures make for fast decisions and delivery of product or service?
  • What structures will enable keeping up to speed or ahead of the curve with changes in customer and market requirements?
  • What structures minimise bottlenecks without incurring risk?

Integration (size and shape)

  • What structure will maximise the flow of knowledge and information through the organisation?
  • What effect do particular structures have on the relationships among business units, divisions, headquarters, customers, suppliers?
  • Does the way a department, business unit or organisation is structured get in the way of efficient and effective workflow?
  • What is the best balance between centralisation and decentralisation?
  • Does the structure allow everyone’s voice to be heard (high participation)?

Flexibility (role clarity)

  • How will jobs and pay levels be described and classified to maximise workforce flexibility?
  • What levels of autonomy, accountability and participation go with each of the potential structures?
  • What are the job designs that go with each type of structure?
  • How well do the relationships between individual departments and between departments and headquarters work?

Innovation (specialisation/organisation identity)

  • What structure will best support the desired culture?
  • What structure will best support organisational values?
  • Does the organisational structure attract the best and the brightest staff (and help retain them)?
  • Will structuring differently help develop the organisation’s market position and competitiveness?
  • What structure would maximise the flow of knowledge and information through the organisation?


  • How will the balance between local and central control be attained?
  • How many layers of management make for effective and efficient control?
  • What is the optimum span (ie, number of people any one person can supervise) of control in a given set of circumstances?
  • How can structures be used to drive the desired/required behaviours?
  • What should be the chain of command/decision-making?
  • Who will report to whom and why?

Because the structure of an organisation is only one design element, there are no straightforward answers to these questions as each has to be answered in relation to the other organisational elements. However, comparing the structures starts to give some useful information on the relative capabilities of each. (In the book there is a table comparing capabilities of the structures).

Combining this information with the advantages and limitations of each structure (in the book there is a table showing this info) gives a reasonable start-point on which to base discussions about current structures and structural alternatives. Repeating a point made earlier, the thing to bear in mind is that even within one organisation there may be a need for several structures. For example, an internal audit function may require a different structure from a research and development group, which may in turn need a different structure from a marketing network.

Layers and spans

People in self-managing organisations do not have the same concerns with layers and spans that people in traditional hierarchical organisations have and it may be that discussions on them gradually fade away as traditional organisations evolve.  However, for the moment it is still a live topic.

Layers in a traditional hierarchical organisation refer to the number of levels of staff there are from the most junior to the most senior – typically varying from 7 to 12.  The trend is to reduce the numbers of layers by merging or removing them in order to place accountability at the lowest possible layer. A span is the number of employees that a single manager is responsible for, usually in terms of allocating work and monitoring performance. The relationship between spans and layers is not straightforward either, although wide spans of management are typical of organisations that have few layers.

There are two frequently asked questions related to structure to which people are anxious to get a ‘right’ answer:

  • How many layers of management should there be?
  • What is the right span of control?

Unfortunately, neither of these questions has one right answer. Layers and spans are structured to help managers get work done, so the first part of an organisational decision on the number of management layers and the span of a manager’s control requires discussions and agreement on what managers are there to do in what context.

In general, managers plan, allocate, co-ordinate and control to achieve what the late Peter Drucker described as their three tasks:

  • To contribute to the specific purpose and mission of the enterprise.
  • To make work productive and the worker achieving.
  • To manage the social impacts and social responsibilities of the organisation.

Clearly, determining what configuration of layers and spans is likely to work in a given organisation depends on the situation, organisational purpose and a host of other factors related to the interpretation of what the three tasks entail and the weighting given to each of them.  In general layers should:

  • be flexible and adaptable enough to enable managers to forward plan in a context of constantly changing operating environments;
  • facilitate co-ordination between business units including leveraging know-how; sharing tangible resources; delivering economies of scale; aligning strategies; facilitating the flow of products or services or information; creating new business;
  • have appropriate control and accountability mechanisms (note that any task, activity, or process should have only one person accountable for it and accountability and decision-making should be at the lowest possible level in the organisation; overlap and duplication, fuzzy decision-making and conflict resolution processes are all symptoms of lack of adequate controls);
  • enable its managers to allocate effectively the range of resources (human, time, equipment, money, and so on) they need to deliver their business objectives.

If these four attributes are working well, it is likely that the layer is adding value to the organisation, in that it is facilitating speed of operation, innovation, integration, flexibility and control. If it is not evident that the layer is doing this, it may be redundant and the reason for its existence should be questioned.

Determining a sensible span of control is possible (though infrequently done) both for an individual manager and for the type of work carried out in a business unit or organisation. The method involves considering, the diversity and complexity of the work, the experience and quality level of the workforce, the extent to which co-ordination or interdependence is important between employees and groups, the amount of change taking place in the work environment, the extent to which co-ordinating mechanisms exist and are effective, the geographic locations of the workgroups, the extent to which job design and tools allow direct performance feedback to the employee, administrative burdens on each level of management, and expectations of employees regarding development and career counselling.

Reflective questions: What is the design impact of de-layering an organisation? How do span considerations relate to size of a self-managing team?  (Note: The reflective questions are a new addition to the book. I am how useful people will find them?)


Designing with systems: design is attitude

At the start of the year I mentioned that some of blogs in the coming months would be written by members of the group working with me on the third edtion of the book I’m writing. This is the first of these, written by Milan Guenther, a co-founder of Intersection Group, a not for profit association dedicated to helping people create better enterprises.

This blog post relates to Chapter 2 of the upcoming 3rd edition of The Economist Guide to Organisation Design, find an excerpt here. I, Milan Guenther, am part of the team of reviewers.

“Enterprise Architecture is the issue of the century”, were the words of John Zachman, the “founding father” of the field. What did he mean?

In his seminal 1998 paper, he described how any enterprise, any ambitious human endeavour, is in need of architecture and engineering to accommodate today’s extreme complexity and rate of change. And this is obviously the case today: all around us, we see humanity’s need to establish well organised agency at scale

Just think of the pandemic and who we count on handling it: government institutions, healthcare providers, insurance and pharma companies. To tackle such an immense challenge, they need to be architected, designed, engineered, or better: co-created so that they are fit for purpose and actually deliver treatment, vaccines or financial support. There is no short supply of similar big challenges to look into.

Some time back, my design school PBSA Düsseldorf published a book about their famous alumni and typographer Helmut Schmid, titled Gestaltung ist Haltung, or design is attitude. The point he made when coining this quote: design always represents an idealised future, and it is up to us to take a stance and define what future we would like to see.

Designers of all types set out to do just that. Create better products, services, businesses, strategies and organisations: the field evolved from crafting useful things to designing better outcomes. This inevitably challenges us to redesign the enterprise itself, its organisation and operations to actually deliver on such a promise. We need to design from the experiences we wish to reshape back to the necessary changes in the systems that make them happen.

In chapter two of her upcoming book edition, Naomi suggests that one way of dealing with enterprises, their organisation and their interplay, is thinking in systems. Both a rich and diverse tradition and a loaded term, the abstraction of all those moving parts to a set of systems expressed as boundaries, relations and interactions can help us understand the emerging behaviour. To do so we need to apply this thinking to a representation of the reality we want to change, or in other words create a model of this reality.

I first encountered Naomi’s thinking about this when my friend Sally Bean pointed me to her blog post on metaphors we use for Organisation Design. When dealing with companies, institutions or similar organisations, we apply an analogy that makes it easier to grasp. Naomi included an example that pictures the enterprise as a human body we can treat and heal. Other common models try to describe it as a machine to be engineered and optimised for performance, or even a sort of swamp supporting many competing lifeforms (referred to as an ecosystem). 

More than simply a way to explain or describe what’s going on inside or around an enterprise, these models shape the way we think about the enterprise, how it is organised and goes about its business. Even when consciously applying systems thinking principles, such a model provides us with a way to understand and talk about this non-tangible, dynamic thing we are supposed to design.

The models we use determine to a large degree if we will be successful in our attempt to design better organisations. It makes a huge difference if you see the enterprise as a set of numbers in a spreadsheet, as a portfolio of projects and initiatives, as a group of people trying to achieve something together, as a collection of machines and processes to be automated, or as a set of products and services delivered to customers.

In my experience, these models correspond to the views of typical functions and their teams – think Marketing, HR, IT or Innovation. They originate from different traditions, and correspond to prevalent metaphors present in these teams. They also stem from the simple fact that different actors are concerned with different things, so it seems natural to focus on those and ignore others. These filters are what enable us to design in the first place:

“(…) it is not possible or feasible to represent everything about an entity (in our case a product, system, or sub-system) in a single encapsulated description. When you are designing a takeaway coffee cup for example, you are interested in how well it holds liquid—it is unlikely that you are concerned about the permittivity of the material to light.” From A Function-Behaviour-Structure design methodology for adaptive production systems

In Organisation Design however, this is known to create some big challenges. The infamous silos, inflexible and rigid bureaucracy, dysfunctional customer relationships or a lack of team engagement are not cause but symptom. They can be linked to the limits of the underlying model people applied when designing and managing the organisation. Consequently, Naomi presents a wide choice of potential models to choose from, from management classics to new approaches of self-organisation. What models to use depends on the context, and not least personal preferences, experiences and appeal to the designer.

This brings us back to the original challenge: designing enterprises and their organisation in a way that they are fit for purpose and deliver value. What perspective, what model, or their combination, will help you get to this – together with your co-creators, in the given context? That is the designer’s greatest challenge and biggest opportunity. A quote by George Box in the beginning of this chapter says: “All models are wrong but some are useful”. Instead of presenting another attempt at the ultimate model, it is up to the designer to choose and apply them in their environment. True for something as intangible and abstract as an organisation, it applies to any design practice.

Just as product, service or fashion design, Organisation Design is a deliberate creative act. Systems thinking and models might give us the elements to consider or useful perspectives to apply, but won’t solve that task for us. What’s more: design is always incomplete, never captures or describes the entire system we want to change. This requires multiple models to guide the change required, and interaction with the system to be changed. Naomi explains this using the story of a merger between two councils in the UK, effectively blending and hacking several models and viewpoints.

To do so, we need to 

  • be comfortable with many incomplete models, 
  • acknowledge the fact that organisations are co-created by teams organising themselves to achieve something, 
  • seek external inspiration, experiment and validate, and 
  • treat this as an open inquiry into the future. 

More important than a neutral or correct model is one that helps you get through this process, develop your personal attitude, and chart a way forward together. What is a well designed organisation? This needs to be figured out by those who can imagine the future.


John Zachman: The Issue is the Enterprise

Helmut Schmid: Gestaltung ist Haltung

Len Fehskens: Designing Ambitious Endeavours 

Naomi Stanford on metaphors

David Sanderson, Jack C. Chaplin & Svetan Ratchev: FBS Ontology

Enterprise Design Patterns

Organisation design systems models

A couple of weeks ago I said I’d alternate an extract a chapter of the coming third edition of one of my books with a reflective blog on that chapter.  This week is an extract on Models from Chapter 2, followed next week by some reflections related to that chapter.


To support the application of systems thinking and systems approaches, organisation designers use ‘systems models’.  These are simple visual representations of an organisation’s elements and the links between them.  

There is sometimes a difficulty in explaining what a systems model is and what it is for.  It becomes clearer by thinking of an organisation as analogous to a living human being.  A human being constitutes 

  • systems –  e.g. the circulatory and nervous systems (note that a ‘system’ is both the whole system, in this case the human body, and sub-systems within it)
  • processes –  e.g. the digestive processes
  • organs – e.g. heart, brain, kidneys, liver and lungs
  • chemical elements – e.g. oxygen, hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen
  • tissues – e.g. muscle tissues, connective tissues

When the human is healthy these systems, processes, etc. work in harmony enabling interaction with their environment.

To explain these body constituents and their inter-relationships, medical educators make use of anatomical models.  Different anatomical models illustrate different constituents of the human body.  For example, Mixed Dimensions’ intricate models ‘show the minute details of the human body’s muscles, bones, and skin’ while SynDavers’ model includes bones, joints, muscles, organs and tendons, major nervous system and vascular components. Similarly, systems models differ in which organisational elements they feature.

Organisational systems models are used similarly to anatomical models.  They enable a step back from the day-to-day organisation – aiming to foster an impartial objectivity, that facilitates constructive discussion on the organisational elements and their relationships to:

  • the external ecosystem and environment (market)
  • the way teams, roles and tasks are organised (organisation)
  • the way business processes are run and the way value is delivered (operations)
  • the way the elements are interdependent

As with anatomical models, there are several different organisational systems models in common use in organisational design work.  Choosing one that is appropriate for a specific organisation’s design intent involves consideration of the strategy, the operating model and the problem or opportunity a new design is intended to solve. 

In cases where none of the off-the-shelf models seem appropriate, a bespoke model can be developed, although this takes time and energy that may be better spent on adapting one of the existing models to fit an organisation’s particular context.

Table 2.1(Note: in the book) compares the five systems models organisation designers most commonly use, noting the elements referenced in each model and some strengths and limitations of each. (Note: these are: McKinsey 7-S, Galbraith’s Star Model, Weisbord’s 6-box model, Nadler and Tushman congruence model, Burke-Litwin model).  This is not an exhaustive list.  There are other models in use some from the related fields of business architecture and enterprise design – for example, the Business Architecture Guild model, the Zachman framework and the Viable System Model. 

Comparing the models helps leaders and designers decide which one is best for use in a specific organisation in a specific context. The choice of model depends on several factors, including:

  • Whether there is a preference for model developed and tested from theory or a model developed and tested from practice (or both). Warner Burke in a paper discussing this point notes that, ‘from the perspective of both research about organisations and consultation to organisational clients, we have experienced some frustration about most, if not all, current organisational models that do little more than describe or depict. A case in point is the 7S model developed by Pascale and Athos (1981) and further honed by Peters and Waterman (1982).’[5] i.e. the models are not derived from empirical research or based in sound theory, but are practitioner or consultant developed, and gain credibility and use through association with a brand.
  • Whether there is a known organisational priority – for example if there is a general feeling that leaders do not give enough strategic direction and guidance, then a model with ‘leadership’ as an element might be chosen as this will drive the need to make an element explicit in the model
  • Whether the outside environment is important – some models do not show external context
  • Whether it can be easily and simply adapted if appropriate.

Further factors for model choice are suggested by researchers Falletta and Combs[6]

  • Whether it meets the organization’s current problem or need;
  • Whether leaders are comfortable with it;
  • Whether it fits the organization’s culture;
  • Whether it is sufficiently comprehensive to capture all of the factors and variables of interest without overwhelming or confusing key stakeholders in the organization.

The models shown Table 2.1 are still in use after 6 decades from first development, giving rise to debate on how appropriate they are for this decade when speed of adaptation to rapidly changing contexts is that much more than in the relative stability of the 1960 and 1970s contexts.  A current major challenge for organisation designers is dealing with so many different and changing types of businesses.  The ’traditional’ organisation and the ’new/evolving’ organisation exist side-by-side and sometimes within the same organisation. This suggests that adherence to one model throughout an organisation may not be appropriate if business units have different operating models, and different products and services.  

Most models force the clear declaration of the organisation’s function. The choice of model to develop the design is more a question of fit. But to help choose the model for the specific organisation, ask diagnostic questions such as:

  • Does the model package the organisational elements in a way that stakeholders will recognise (are there enough, are they ones that are important in the organisation)?
  • How will stakeholders react to the presented model (is it jargon-free, and simple to understand and communicate)?
  • Will the model find favour across the organisation or will it compete with other organisation design models?
  • Does the model harbour implicit assumptions that might help or hinder design work? For example, does it include or exclude factors such as local culture (both national and organisational) and human factors (such as personalities), or does it suggest ways that elements may relate to each other?
  • How adaptable is the model to the specific context and circumstances in which it will be used? Does it enable any new perspectives or innovative thinking? Is it scalable to small work-unit design and whole organisation design?
  • Does the model work with other models in use in the organisation (for example, change management or project management models)?
  • Are the costs to adopt the model acceptable (for example, training, communication and obtaining buy-in)?
  • Does the model allow for new and unconventional organisation design that will help drive the business strategy?
  • Does the model have a sponsor or champion who will help communicate it appropriately?
  • Does the model allow for transformational design as well as transactional design? (Transformational means a design developed in response to environmental forces either internal or external to the organisation – for example, creation or closure of a business unit or a merger – that affects the mission, strategy and culture. Transactional means changes related to the business or work-unit structures, systems, processes, and so on that might be needed to carry out the mission and strategy but do not change them.)’

[5] W W Burke & G H Litwin. (1992). A Causal Model of Organizational Performance and Change. Journal of Management. Vol 18. No 3 (1992) p 529

[6] Falletta, Salvatore. (2018). The Organizational Intelligence Model in Context, OD Practitioner Vol 50 No1

Introducing organisation design – part 2

Introducing organisation design sounds more straightforward than it is in practice.  Each time I’m asked to do something on introducing organisation design I ask myself what exactly it is that I am introducing. 

‘Organisation design’ is both a process – the process of designing an organisation, and an outcome.  Once the process is complete you have a designed organisation.  Except, more often than not, you don’t. 

Organisation designing is not like product designing.  You don’t end up with a definable ‘thing’ – a hairdryer or a notebook or a software module.     Organisations are not very definable, and certainly not in the ‘thing’ sense.  Common themes about what an organisation are include groups of people, acting together, in pursuit of common goals or objectives.

But this isn’t very satisfactory.  I won’t go into why this is the case, as Paul Griseri has covered it brilliantly in Chapter 1 of his (2013) book, An introduction to the philosophy of management

He opens the chapter asking ‘what exactly is an organisation? We can distinguish the two following senses of this question:  What is it for something in general to be an organisation?  How can we decide whether a specific ‘thing’ is an organisation or not?’  After 21 very readable pages he concludes without defining an organisation and without being able to confirm that organisations exist.  You can read the whole chapter here .

On the one hand, I take comfort from this as it illustrates the kind of conundrums I come up against when I think about introducing organisation design.  On the other hand – having been told many times in my career that I am ‘too academic’ – I take the view that I’ll raise challenging questions as and when and aim to keep myself in a position of equilibrium on the Perceived Weirdness Index. (I wrote about this Index a few years ago).

Thus, I plunge into Chapter 1: Introducing Organisation Design, of the book I’m writing, boldly side-stepping the indefinability of ‘organisation’ and whether or not organisations exist and start from the assumption that organisations are somehow ‘there’ (or ‘here’) evidenced by people getting pay-cheques and putting the name and logo of the organisation they get them from on their Linked In page.  And further assuming on this basis that organisations can be intentionally designed, at least in some aspects. 

As an aside, I was never able to explain to my mother’s satisfaction what organisation design is.  When I told her I had been asked to write another book on organisation design her immediate response was, ‘I don’t know how anyone can write one book on organisation design, let alone two.’  However, she proudly displayed all my writing on her bookshelf. 

What I learned from my mother’s response was to use familiar analogies and examples to illustrate points and stick to plain language.   I’m going to carefully check the book draft against George Orwell’s five rules of writing.

In introducing organisation design I suggest that the work of organisation designing should be effective, continuous and reflective.  To help make sure it is, I propose five principles to bear in mind when designing:

  1. Organisation design is driven by the business purpose and strategy, the operating model and the operating context
  2. Organisation design requires systems thinking: about the many elements of the organisation and the connections between them
  3. Organisation design takes strong, thoughtfully used, future-oriented mindsets and methods.
  4. The organisation design process involves social interactions and conversations as much as formal planning.
  5. Organisation design is a fundamental continuing business process, not a one-off repair job.

The set is not empirically researched, rather it is born out of the practitioner experience of the group working with me on the book (ed – is the group an organisation?) and their responses to the set in the second edition of the book which had six principles. 

We spent time discussing and refining that second edition set into the set of five above.  There are not major differences i.e. there are no different principles – the changes are of focus and some of the wording. 

On the first principle we all had different views on whether organisational members need a shared purpose or not.     Note that the concepts of shared purpose(s) are debated in Griseri’s chapter mentioned earlier. It could be fun to host a debate on ‘What’s the value of having a shared organisational purpose?’ – or similar title and hear all sides.

On the second principle, we abandoned the word ‘holistic’ which was originally in principle 2 as it is hard to be clear, as one of the group I’m working with, said, ‘on what holistic thinking actually is, because we all generally think about individual items and connections between them in turn, not about all of them simultaneously.’  Instead, we maintained the thread of systems thinking which is carried throughout the book. 

The third principle we are still debating!  And are thinking of offering an alternative, but similar, one ‘Organisation design takes intentionality, well-chosen methods, and thinking that is rigorous, open and forward-looking’.   We were challenged by a group member who asked: ‘Would principle 3 be the same if it said “OD requires future-oriented methods”.  Currently, it includes a few smuggling words: strong, thoughtfully used, mindsets – in each case, why? What would be wrong with a weak, thoughtless, mindless approach, as long as it were future oriented (!) ?’  What’s your view of principle 3?

Principle four has also been a focus of attention. We have agreed that we need to enable co-creation and collaboration – both in the OD process itself and in the capabilities of the resulting organisation.  But we haven’t specified those two words in order to allow for other aspects of ‘social interactions and conversations’.   Does the principle, as written, adequately include co-creation and collaboration?

This discussion took me into thinking more about designing organisations that are inherently collaborative.  Do they have particular design characteristics?  There’s a research article by Paul Adler and Charles Heckscher exploring this topic that I found helpful – Collaboration as an Organization Design for Shared Purpose.  The article discusses ‘the organizational form that could create and sustain a widely shared commitment to the organization’s ultimate purpose in large, complex, business enterprises facing dynamic environments’ the form they come up with is the ‘collaborative form’.

Adler and Heckscher offer four designable attributes for collaboration in support of shared purpose:  ethic of contribution, interactive process management, participative centralization, T-shaped skills.  On the T-shaped skills the authors say ‘the collaborative organization deliberately plans members’ skill development to support their ability to contribute to the organization’s ultimate purposes’, which runs counter to some arguments that people are in charge of their own career and skills development.     

They warn that ‘the collaborative organization is costly to create and difficult to maintain. It depends on reliable mechanisms for establishing and updating reputations; but we know that these mechanisms are vulnerable to opportunistic manipulation. The high level of participation in collaborative organizations requires considerable meeting time; but such meetings are costly and burdensome. The collaborative form requires openness to diversity, difference, and disagreement; but it offers little assurance these will not explode the collectivity or seal the organization off from the outside world as a closed sect.’ 

We do tend to toss around the word ‘collaboration’ or the phrase ‘a culture of collaboration’ and I wonder if we have thought carefully enough about what this means in practice. 

The fifth principle  emerged unscathed from our discussion of it and remains pretty much identical to the second edition version. 

In conclusion, the way I have used the principles in the past and the way I will continue, I think, to use them is as thought provokers to encourage reflection and intentionality about designing.  

What’s your view of the five principles?  How would you use them?  Let me know. 

Image:  Design management  Author/Copyright holder: Wiki4des. Copyright terms and licence: CC BY-SA 3.0

Introducing organisation design – part 1

introducing organisation design

When I wrote my Fresh Start blog last week, I had in my mind that there would be a weekly blog at least until the end of May 2021 when the draft of the book was submitted.  I’ve now checked my schedule – why didn’t I do this before? –  and see that the blog is actually alternate weeks.  So, theoretically I’m off the hook, except, judging from some lovely comments I’ve received, I think that readers are expecting a weekly blog again. 

In order to meet customer expectations I’ve decided to post an extract from each chapter of the book one week followed by a discussion – the properly scheduled blog – of that chapter topic by me or one of the group the following week.  Constructive comments on the extracts are welcome.

Here is a slightly edited extract from Chapter 1 which introduces the topic.  (You can also see me giving a video talk, Organisation Design 101 in the Quality & Equality Just in Case series).

‘This book is about organisation design, specifically the ‘doing’ of organisation design – the process of intentionally aligning the ‘hard’ and explicit business elements that can be documented through narrative or graphics, for example in business process maps, policy manuals, customer journey maps, system operating guides, organisation charts and governance mechanisms, so that each supports the others.  

Inevitably the ‘soft’ elements that are not easily documented – interactions, feelings, perceptions, cultural attributes come into play.  This interplay between the hard and soft elements of an organisation is another tension that leaders and organisation designers have to bear in mind.

The outcome of the activities of doing the organisation design is the design itself. Many people mistake the organisation design with the organisational structure (aka the organisation chart).  Design is not about the organisation chart. It is much more than that.  [There is an example which illustrates in the chapter]

Although organisational structure is discussed in this book it is not the main focus. Organisational structure – the arrangement of the different departments/units of an organization and the different teams and roles working in each department/unit, in an ordered way – is only one of several elements in an organisation design. 

To explain the differences between design and structure, consider the analogy of a vehicle.  The design of the vehicle is not just the chassis.  Like an organisation, a vehicle comprises multiple interdependent elements designed and aligned to deliver high performance.  For a vehicle, these include the engine, gearbox parts, drive axle, steering and suspension, brakes, oil filter, chassis, battery, alternator, shock absorbers and other parts.   The elements of the vehicle are designed and aligned to work in seamless unison to propel the car forward.  This totality is the design of the vehicle.

Even with advancing technologies a vehicle is not (yet) self-designed and delivered.  It takes people working on the end-to-end design to delivery process. These people are organized i.e. structured – into business units, into teams within the business units and into roles within the teams.    The appropriate structuring of people to deliver a product or service is one element of the entire design.

The analogy of the vehicle to an organisation is not perfect as a vehicle is a mechanical, physical, stable (in a design sense) object.  A car will not gradually morph into tank.  Organisations, on the contrary, are complex entities constantly shifting in response to their context.  The shifts may be intentionally designed, although very often they gradually shift form, without any overall intention. 

Organisation design is about intention to design a better organisation.  There are multiple definitions of the term ‘organisation design’, each giving a slightly different take on what it is:

Practitioner and academic Nicolay Worren in his blog ‘What is organisation design?’ says that OD means more than ‘boxology’, involving ‘the creation of roles, processes and structures to ensure that the organization’s goals can be realized’.  

The Center for Organizational Design says, ‘Organizational design is a step-by-step methodology which identifies dysfunctional aspects of work flow, procedures, structures and systems’.   

McKinsey describes organisation design as ‘going beyond lines and boxes to define decision rights, accountabilities, internal governance, and linkages’. 

The European Organisation Design Forum defines it as a systematic and holistic approach to aligning and fitting together all parts of an organisation to achieve its defined strategic intent.

The definition of organisation design used in this book is ‘intentionally arranging people, work and explicit, documentable organisational elements to effectively and efficiently achieve a business purpose and strategy.’

What all these definitions have in common is they view an organisation as a system, comprising interdependent elements that collectively work to deliver a purpose – a design will not deliver if elements are designed in isolation.

Returning to the vehicle design analogy – in the same way that vehicle designers cannot ignore driver and maintenance engineer skills and the way that they contribute to high performance, so organisation designers cannot ignore the social and behavioural elements i.e. human elements of an organisation – employees, customers, of citizens, and so on – the human factor is an unpredictable, possibly non-designable, variable. However it must be considered as part of the design process.

Organisation design, according to Tom Peters,   is a business process that “is so critical it should be on the agenda of every meeting in every single department”. Curiously, however, executives rarely talk about it as an everyday issue, and even more rarely reflect on the interactions between the organisational elements and complex social dynamics in order to redesign their business for success.

Peter Senge, in his book The Fifth Discipline,  points out why intentional organisation design work is uncommon:

Part of the reason why design is a neglected dimension of leadership: little credit goes to the designer. The functions of design are rarely visible; they take place behind the scenes. The consequences that appear today are the result of work done long in the past, and work today will show its benefits far in the future. Those who aspire to lead out of a desire to control, or gain fame, or simply to be “at the centre of the action” will find little to attract them in the quiet design work of leadership.’

The premise of this book is that organisation design matters and that an organisation has a better chance of success if it is reflectively and continuously designed.’

And now you have a taster of Chapter 1 Introducing Organisation Design.  Next week’s blog will talk about the five organisation design principles discussed in the chapter.

Image: Principles for organisational design

Fresh start

A new year, a fresh start.  My last posted blog was at the end of July.  Five months ago.  At that point I said I was starting to write the third edition of one of my books, The Economist Guide to Organisation Design.  I have started.  Last week I sent the first two draft chapters to the editor for comments.

This hasn’t been without a struggle, writing is not easy.  And writing well is even less easy.  I am constantly making fresh starts on each paragraph.  Alongside the chapter I am writing I have a document called ‘cut bits’ which are all the bits I am cutting out that I’ve just written. I keep them in case I find that, after all, they contain a gem of insight. 

To my joy and gratitude, I am not alone in this endeavour.  What I’ve learned about writing in the course of my practice of it, is that co-authoring is not for me.  I’ve tried it a couple of times and that’s enough.  But having collaboration, discussion, reflection, feedback and general support from a group of interested people is what I felt I needed to keep going this time around.  And this would have to come with some structured process.  It’s too easy for me to write a schedule for myself and then let it drift away as I let other things distract my attention.  (Read Super Structured, by David Stiernholm for some good tips on sticking to your intentions).

On 9 August 2020, having just got the contract for the book, and knowing my ‘development area’ I contacted five people all of whom had previously said they’d be happy to contribute/give feedback/review the writing/generally be involved in whatever way they could and invited them to a Zoom meeting to discuss what this might mean in practice.

What happened then is turning into the most energising and supportive experience for me.  We are meeting alternate weeks.  I’ve been sending them a second edition chapter with my comments on it, they make comments and then in a 30-minute Zoom meeting we discuss the chapter and the various comments for me to start reworking for the third edition. 

For example, in Chapter 1 of the second edition I talk about ‘vision and mission’ – that passed me by but one of the group highlighted it, commenting:

‘I think ‘purpose’ is stronger currency than vision/mission now in the operating context.  I wonder if vision and mission now feel too future focused to be able to plan and predict and that we are now planning and designing in smaller chunks/iterations and in making smaller bets on the future we are able to course correct and adapt more easily?

There is a good article from HBR with a quote from Greg Ellis, former CEO of REA Group who said his company’s purpose was “to make the property process simple, efficient, and stress free for people buying and selling a property.” This takes outward focus to a whole new level, not just emphasizing the importance of serving customers or understanding their needs but also putting managers and employees in customers’ shoes.  It says, “This is what we’re doing for someone else.” And it’s motivational, because it connects with the heart as well as the head. Indeed, Ellis called it the company’s “philosophical heartbeat.”  (Hat tip: Fiona McLean)

This led to a fruitful group discussion on purpose versus vision and mission that has informed the new Chapter 1.   By 30 December we had completed the review of Chapter 9 of the second edition – the final chapter in the book, and I asked them if they wanted to stop the fortnightly meetings.   What’s so wonderful is that they said no – they were enjoying the process, learning things and honing their own ideas and wanted to carry on – this time with the actual new third edition chapters.   

Back in August 2020 I wondered how it would all work out.  Now we seemed to have formed what feels to me somewhat like an action learning set,  which we are all benefiting from.

When I heard their interest in carrying on, on the one hand I thought ‘that is so fantastic’ and on the other I thought ‘oh no, I’ll have to get down to seriously scheduling writing, and having something to share each fortnight.   But now it’s not just me!  Because in the course of the discussions I thought, others would enjoy hearing the different perspectives that inform our discussions.  

This led me to thinking about making a fresh start with my weekly blog and I asked the group members, ‘if each of you would be interested in doing a guest blog for my website, reflecting your thoughts on one of the topics we’ve discussed. …  They could be under an intro blog explaining how we are working on the book and why we are interested in the involvement.’

And this is what this is, the intro blog.  Each week till the final draft of the book gets submitted (28 May if all goes well and to plan), there will be a blog on each of the nine chapters of the book, four by me and five others, one by each of the group:  Jim Shillady, Rani Salman, Milan Guenther, Fiona McLean and Giles Slinger.  The idea is not to mirror the chapter content but to offer thoughts on the chapter’s topic from the perspectives of the writer.   They’ll introduce themselves and their interest in the topic they’re writing about. 

We’ve agreed a schedule and it may get followed to the letter, but as we are talking a lot about adaptability, uncertainty, readiness, unpredictability and so on we may be in the position of showing we can walk the talk if circumstances require.   And in our agreed alternate week discussions we’ll be discussing the upcoming blog and one of the chapters. My schedule demands two chapters a month!

You may be wondering why I’ve used the phrase ‘fresh start’ several times in this blog.  It’s because I was struck by Leo Babauta’s lovely piece on The Magic of a Fresh Start.  It had caught my attention back in October when he wrote it, and I looked it out again a week or so ago.   It opens:

‘One of the biggest obstacles to sticking with a habit change, a new system, a goal or long-term project … is that we get disrupted.

Something interrupts our progress — we skip a workout day or two — and then some programming in our brains turns that into a message of how we’re not good enough, we can’t do it, we should just give up.’

He offers suggestions on taking a different slant on this and ends saying

‘The beautiful thing is that a Fresh Start is available to us not only when we get disrupted or stumble … but in every moment. Every day. … Every new meeting with someone, every new conversation’.

It’s a good thought for me to hold onto.  Each time I falter in writing, or don’t meet the schedule,  I can offer myself a fresh start on it and know that I have the support of the group.  If one of them falters the others of us can offer the fresh start idea.  I like it because it offers a positive alternative to the idea of failure.  

And 2021 does, at a more global level, seem to be offering the possibilities and hope of a Fresh Start.

All the best to you and a Happy New Year.

Organisation design and the five crises

With signed contract in hand, I’ve decided that 1 August, 2020 is the day I begin writing the third edition of my book The Economist Guide to Organisation Design.

The corollary of that decision is that the blogs I write in the coming months will follow the book writing flow and may not be weekly but more spasmodic.  I have to keep up a disciplined pace on the writing – the submission date of the draft is end May 2021.

Last September asked my blog readers whether I should write a third edition.  I was in two minds about it. What tipped the balance in favour of writing it was the coronavirus – Covid-19 crisis.

Covid-19’s impacts have triggered, exacerbated and/or highlighted the five concurrent global crises we are now living with:  health, economic, humanitarian, political and climate.   Both individually and collectively these crises are forcing organisational rethinks and redesigns.   I can’t think of any organisations which are untouched by one or more of them ways not experienced or thought about pre-Covid.

This makes the third edition and exciting and challenging task.  I’m wondering how to pitch it at a level that is helpful to managers.  Think about some of the design implications they are facing in relation to the five concurrent crisis:

Health:  As we don’t know how Covid-19 will play out,  we are assuming we will have to maintain social distancing and remote working for some months or possibly years.   With this in mind organisational decision makers are redesigning their physical layoutsremote working policies, and grappling with questions similar to ones this organisation asking:

  • Should we institute a business travel policy that anyone returning from a business trip cannot come into the office for 2 weeks?
  • Should we tell people who usually come to the office by public transport to travel by car or bike instead?
  • Should we allow staff who travel to foreign countries on holiday (even ‘green’ ones) back to the office within 2 weeks of their return?

Design questions on this include:  How do we design safe workspaces?  What systems and processes may need redesign for remote working?  What are we assuming about work location and the design of work?

Economic:  Oxford University economist Kate Raworth, author of Doughnut Economics, says ‘The need for new economic thinking is most evident than ever. I’m planning a series of video blogs exploring the coronavirus crisis through the lens of Doughnut Economics.’  In her twitter thread on the blogs she quotes Buckminster Fuller “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

One existing model that may be becoming obsolete is that of the Rational Economic Man.  Watch a delightful rap puppet video between three students and their economics professor.While the professor argues that Economic Man – a rational, self-interested, money-driven being – serves the theory well, the students counter that a more nuanced portrait reflecting community, generosity and uncertainty is now essential. A musical puppet adventure challenging the heart of outdated economic thinking ensues.’    Supposing organisation leaders and designers rejected the Rational Economic Man what new design thinking, approaches and models would we develop that rendered our old approaches obsolete  and helped to create new types of thriving businesses.

Humanitarian: Humanitarian assistance is ‘intended to save lives, alleviate suffering and maintain human dignity during and after man-made crises and disasters caused by natural hazards, as well as to prevent and strengthen preparedness for when such situations occur.’

The IPPF points out that:  ‘While most countries are currently struggling to respond to COVID-19, the pandemic poses a particularly dire threat in fragile and humanitarian settings. An estimated 1.8 billion people live in fragile contexts worldwide, including 168 million in need of humanitarian assistance.’  Covid-19 is having an immense impact on the operation of humanitarian organisations.  “In humanitarian response, there will be a ‘before’ and ‘after’ COVID-19,” Ed Schenkenberg van Mierop, executive director of the think tank HERE-Geneva, wrote in late March.’

But an analysis from The New Humanitarian suggests that ‘as the crisis born of this global pandemic has evolved, some of the promises of deep transformation in a humanitarian aid sector that has long resisted reform have proven overly optimistic – at least so far.’ The analysis offers ‘13 ways the pandemic may change the future of humanitarianism – and the forces of resistance that may get in the way,’ and asks the question:  How do you think COVID-19 will transform the humanitarian aid sector?

Political:  The International Foundation for Electoral Systems, as of July 15 2020, has recorded election postponements in 62 countries and eight territories, with a total of 108 election events postponed.  They note that ‘Countries are also grappling with how to modify election procedures to minimize the risk for COVID-19 transmission, or change the system for voting completely to avoid the need for voters to physically go to the polls.’   These imply a whole range of re-designs of voting systems.  At the same time, Covid-19 is having a serious impact on trade, trade treaties and supply chains.

The WTO writes that ‘New trade measures are being taken by governments every day in response to COVID-19. If the different actors engaged in supply chains are not aware of these new requirements, they can struggle to adapt to the new conditions, thereby risking unnecessary disruptions. For example, exporters and importers need to know about new procedures and regulations affecting exports and imports, newly introduced export restrictions, tariffs, taxes and regulations, and new customs rules and transportation regulations.’ This shifting political context will continue to have organisation design implications.

Climate:  It’s cheering to read that ‘A new analysis of policies designed to promote economic recovery following the global coronavirus pandemic has led the experts to recommend ten concrete measures that will slow global warming while creating new jobs. … A group of more than 30 UK universities, formed to help deliver positive outcomes at the UN Climate Summit in Glasgow (COP26), have highlighted the fiscal recovery policies that promise to bring both short-term high economic impact and long-term structural change to ensure the UK meets its 2050 climate goals.  I’m wondering how many organisations will factor climate change action into their redesigning their operations as a response to Covid-19.

As I have conversations with organisation design colleagues on the way the practice is evolving as these crises evolve, I’m wondering how much of the book I’ll need to re-write completely.   Do you think organisation design practice is evolving at a speed necessary to design in the context of these five current and concurrent crises?  Let me know.