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.

‘Bring your whole self to work’

In August I start training for a new career.  I’m planning to be a celebrant and my  pre-course start assignment is to write the story of my life in 500 words – within 15 words either way.  The instructions say,  ‘You can write in any style you like, and you can use the first or third person. We will ask you to read part (or all) of your life story aloud as a public speaking exercise, so please don’t include anything you would prefer to keep private.’

This is proving a hard task.  I’m wondering what the story of my life is, and how do I tell it in just 500 words?  I’ve had a couple of goes at it from various angles and now I’m skimming ‘how to’ guidance and discover there are many books on how to write your life story which I don’t have time to read as I have to submit mine next week.

What makes it hard is there isn’t one story.  When I visited my daughter in Beirut I bought a string of prayer beads.  There are 33 beads on it and for some reason as I was thinking about my life story I remembered the beads and wondered if I had 33 life stories.  I found I had – it was easy enough to list them out – my life as a teacher, my life as a student, etc.  They are all ‘me’ at all times – there isn’t a part that I don’t carry with me, though there may be parts that I prefer to keep private.

Mulling this over, led me to remember the poster at work i.e. in the physical office I used to go to, not my new Zoom screen home workplace. The poster proclaims that the goal is to be an organisation ‘where everyone feels able to bring their whole self to work and perform at their best. One that can attract, develop and retain the most diverse talent. Where openness, honesty, challenge and innovation are encouraged and valued.’

In a blog I wrote last year, I said, ‘Many words and phrases in organisational use puzzle me.  ‘Bring your whole self to work’ is a current one, as is ‘empowerment’, and ‘resilience’.  They’re possibly ok as concepts, but what do they mean in practice and what are the organisational design implications of them?’

The phrase ‘bring your whole self to work’ is particularly odd, in my view.  Who doesn’t bring their whole self to work?  What bits do they leave somewhere else?   I could leave bits out of my written life story but when I go to work, I am automatically bringing my whole self.

I was discussing the phrase, by email, with Chris Rodgers, earlier this week.  He says, ‘Good luck in pursuing your challenge to the “bring your whole self to work” mantra. As it continues to gain momentum, we can expect a plethora of books, programmes, diagnostic tests and the rest to appear.

From my perspective, this is another superficially attractive concept that shows little or no understanding of the complex social dynamics of organization.  … People can’t do anything but ‘bring their whole selves to work. However they turn up, their actions are always reflections of their whole selves.  An individual’s sense of self is a relational phenomenon. It is being perpetually (re)constructed in the moment of their ongoing interactions with other people (both actual and imagined). People, that is, whose own sense of self is similarly being formed and reformed in the midst of their own interactions. There are no pre-existing “true selves” waiting to be discovered, “brought to work,” and applied “authentically”.

Crucially, too, people don’t only bring their ‘whole self’ to work all of the time, they also ‘bring along‘ everyone with whom they have an important relationship. You might recall, from our past exchanges, my notion of people’s “personal frames of reference” through which they strive to maintain all of their important relationships in an acceptable state simultaneously. Maintaining this imaginary and socially constructed frame intact is a key factor affecting people’s in-the-moment participation.

The real challenge, then, is one of managers enabling people, individually and collectively, to contribute their time and talents to the full. Doing so in the light of what is actually emerging; the constantly shifting power relationships amongst those involved that are enabling and constraining their actions; and the political dynamics that are continuously in play, as they and others seek to deal with the different interests, intentions, interpretations, ideologies, identities, and so on.’

What Chris says is very similar to what Nick Chater, Professor of Behavioural Science, Warwick University, says in a (free) Futurelearn course I am doing called  ‘The Mind is Flat’ Nick has a book with the same title.   A reviewer says about it, ‘You probably think you have beliefs, desires, fears, a personality, an “inner life”, maybe even a subconscious. Poppycock, says Nick Chater, a behavioural psychologist. All that stuff is folk nonsense. The brain essentially just makes everything up as it goes along – including what we fondly think of as our direct perceptions of the world, which are a patchwork of guesses and reconstructions. There is nothing going on “underneath”; there are no depths.’

It’s a view shared by Chris Rodgers who says, ‘I do agree with his [Chater’s] basic premise that the mind is ‘flat’, in the sense that there is no processing going on in our unconscious as a precursor to our conscious thinking and acting. Nor do we have a store of memories, in the sense that this notion is ordinarily understood.  Instead, our memories, thoughts and actions are constructed (and/or reconstructed) in the moment. Crucially, though, these tend to follow the patterns of our past sensemaking. That is, these are based on precedent rather than principle, as Chater also points out. As regards our memories, I talk about our re-membering of the past (i.e. putting it together afresh each time from our current vantage point). This draws on the Stacey/Griffin/Shaw notion of the “living present”.

Similarly, Jon Kabat-Zinn in his book ‘Wherever you go there you are’, says, ‘you carry your head and your heart, and what some would call your karma, around with you.  You cannot escape yourself, try as you might’.

Agreeing with the notion that you can’t not bring your whole self to work, I’d like to see the phrase  dropped from organisational vocabulary.  (Understanding that you can, however, sensibly choose what to keep private about yourself).

Instead of meaningless phrases, let’s focus on the goal to be organisations ‘that can attract, develop and retain the most diverse talent. Where openness, honesty, challenge and innovation are encouraged and valued.’    And in Chris Rodger’s words address the real challenge, ‘managers enabling people, individually and collectively, to contribute their time and talents to the full.’  (See also this London Business School blog on the topic).

Do you think the phrase ‘bring your whole self to work’ should be dropped?  Let me know.

Image:  Extract from Walt Whitman, Song of Myself, 51

Diversity in info curation?

Each month I get the European Organisation Design Forum Newsletter, available to their members.  (I’m on the newsletter’s ‘Curatorial Board’.  The board member role is to suggest/select articles, books, podcasts, videos etc for inclusion).

I seem to now be on high diversity and inclusion alert because l noticed that all the contributions for the June newsletter were from white, western males.  It’s not a huge number of contributions each month but this month’s led me to wonder what we might be missing as a profession if our information, research and ‘look to figures’ are predominantly from that category.

Curious, I logged onto the EODF website (member’s area), I took a look at the Resource Library, ‘one of the most comprehensive collection of Org Design resources in the world, organised by 9 key themes.’  FYI, the themes are Agile organisations, Holacracy, Re-organisation and re-design, Change management,  Strategy and leadership, Collaboration, decision making and job design,  Structure and operating model,  HRM, culture and organisation development,  Emerging trends.

I picked the theme ‘Structure and Operating Model’.  There are 32 items in it.  16 are classified as ‘articles’, and 16 as ‘blogs’ (two of the blogs are + video).  Discounting the 6 blogs listed that I wrote, leaves 26 items.

Naming the authors gives us the following (some items were co-authored)  Bram, Ben Dankbaar, Sergio Caredda, Joost (two blogs) , George Romme, Aaron De Smet + Sarah Kleinman + Kirsten Weerda,  David B. Yoffie ,   Annabelle Gawer + Michael A. Cusumano, Barry Camson, Jack Fuller, Michael G. Jacobides + Martin Reeves, Ranjay Gulati, Adam Pearce, Zhang Ruimin, David Hanna, Yve Morieux, Nicolay Worren (two blogs) , Andrew Campbell, Dov Seidman, Pim de Morree, Gary Hamel +  Michele Zanini,  Simone Cicero  (two blogs),  Michael Bazigos + Jim Harter, Art Kleiner.

There are 29 authors in total with 3 articles co-authored with women.  There is no woman writing an article as a sole author.  I don’t know what gender each author identifies with as this is not stated so I’ve taken the names (and in some cases seen accompanying photos) which leads me to assume that of the 29 authors there are 4 women, there is one Chinese and one Indian American author.  I believe all the others are white males.   That’s 80% of the authors on this theme of organisation design are white males.

I’m taking that theme as representative of the others – so I’m lacking a rigorous, larger sample evidence base – but from observation and my knowledge of the field the theme does feel representative.   The organisation design field is dominated by white male speakers/writers for it.  And as I frequently suggest articles for inclusion I’m contributing to the domination of that category.

Presumably, but I don’t have data to back up this presumption, the fact that the ‘voice’ of organisation design is dominated by white, western males, reflects a deeper imbalance of ethnicity, gender, and (possibly) culture in the work that we do?   (On culture the writers of the articles I looked at are either American or European apart from Zhang Ruimin who is Chinese).

There’s not an easy answer to the question how to address the imbalance.  Other disciplines are asking the same question.  For example, a  recent film ‘Picture a Scientist’ ‘tells the stories of three female scholars, revealing the systemic and structural nature of gender discrimination and harassment in academic science. The film shows how intersections of sexism and racism shape experiences differently for white women and for women of color and how implicit bias both generates inequity and prevents us from noticing it.’

And the American Economic Association, on June 5th issued a statement saying that “we have only begun to understand racism and its impact on our profession and our discipline.”  As the author of the article on this says, ‘Openness to more diverse groups of people and ideas should enhance the profession’s understanding of the world. Barriers to entry are not only unfair, they could undermine healthy competition in the marketplace for ideas.

It’s time to examine whether there is implicit bias in the way we talk about, record, research and practice organisation design and whether this is undermining ideas, generating inequities, and limiting our understanding of the organisational worlds where we do our work.

When I saw June’s line-up of white, western male articles in the EODF newsletter, I suggested to the Curatorial Board that we could agree some principles for article inclusion, that would encourage a broader range.  A colleague responded, ‘Lovely idea Naomi, also when I think of inclusion of gender/ethnicity, I think we must highlight our EODF/ODF members works and writings. This also means cross cultural. Sometimes we go to the same well too often.  Our articles and readings should be broadly inclusive and representative of our hopes and professional experiences.’

So now I’m wondering what principles for inclusion would work to present some broader perspectives on organisation design.

One, I think is around language used.   I read an interesting blog, ‘Terminology: it’s not black and white‘ The NCSC now uses ‘allow list’ and ‘deny list’ in place of ‘whitelist’ and ‘blacklist’.  And wondered if there are there organisation design terms or article language we should think about?   As an aside, when I first went to live in the US (from the UK), the US language use, and US sports terms as management speak left me feeling baffled at points.  And I remember having to explain ‘donkeys years’ to a colleague.   Are colloquialisms and some of the terms in common use in management articles excluding?

Another is about assumptions – perhaps we could choose articles and then critique or comment on the assumptions implicit in it.  For example, one of my assumptions, I often discuss with people in the Middle East and China whom I work with, is that organisation design should be a collaborative, involving process with a range of workforce members and other stakeholders.  Typically, their view of how organisations should/do organisation design doesn’t assume this.  So, a principle could be that each article comes with someone’s critique or observations on the implied assumptions in it.

A third principle could be to ask for suggestions for article/blog/podcast inclusion from the community of readers (or broader community).  On this principle there would be no standing Curatorial Board selecting articles but an open call or running list that people contributed to and the selection made by a rolling panel of people.

Differently we could look to the stated mission of the ODF ‘We are organization design practitioners who share knowledge, create community, and promote excellence in practice to help organizations around the world become more effective, successful, and inspiring.’   Or the EODF’s which is to be ‘a professional organisation design community that catalyses insight and inspiration for impact’.   And check that each item in the newsletter supports the achievement of those missions – with someone’s explanation of why they think it does.

What principles do you think we should adopt in selecting items for the monthly newsletter?  Let me know.

Image:  Beneath the Surface

Talking about organisation charts

How would you answer this question?

‘I’m working with a client and thinking about whether their Business Partners (e.g., HR, Finance, Supply Chain etc) should report:

  1. Solid line back to the centre (maximising consistency and capability etc) and dotted line to their customer i.e., Operations  – or
  2. Solid line to their customer (i.e., Operations) (maximising customer service) and dotted line back to their Function.’

Someone asked me it the other day.  Here’s how I responded: ‘There isn’t a quick ‘right’ answer.  What are they trying to achieve?  What is the work? What arrangements will make the work more meaningful to the job-holder?  What are the measures that will evidence that a solid line maximises either consistency or customer service?

There are multiple other variables in the mix.  The quality of the relationships is one.  For example, the HRBP reporting as a solid line to their customer may not get on with that person.  Capability is another – an inexperienced HRBP may not have the skills to maximise customer service.

Does it have to be one or other?  Could some functional business partners report with a solid line to the functional head e.g. finance BPs, and other BPs e.g. HR report with a solid line to the customer.  Taking a mixed approach by function you could see (perhaps) which method gave better outcomes and what were the variables to consider?’

My answer may not be satisfactory to the questioner as it doesn’t give anything more than further questions.  But too often I see people reach for an organisation chart ‘solution’ to an issue, problem, or opportunity.

One reason for this may be that they equate an organisation chart with the phase ‘organisation structure’ and/or ‘organisation design’, and think that by changing the reporting lines and roles they are redesigning or restructuring.  This is not the case.  A traditional organisation chart is simply a visual representation of job roles into hierarchies, layers and spans.  Changing these elements clearly does change things but it is not a good starting point for design, redesign, or restructure.

In the article 10 Principles of Organisation Design, authors Gary Nielsen et al using the word ‘structure’ as a synonym for organisation chart rightly tell us to ‘Fix the structure last, not first. Company leaders know that their current org chart doesn’t necessarily capture the way things get done — it’s at best a vague approximation. Yet they still may fall into a common trap: thinking that changing their organization’s structure will address their business’s problems.’

Organisational structures are neither represented or organisation charts nor are structures simple.  They are much more complex and not, perhaps, amenable to a simple visual representation.  (See my blog ‘What I talk about when I talk about structure’).

Richard Karash’s blog ‘How to see structure’, describes structure as ‘the network of relationships that creates behaviour.’ Saying, ‘The essence of structure is not in the things themselves but in the relationships of things. By its very nature, structure is difficult to see. As opposed to events and patterns, which are usually more observable, much of what we think of as structure is often hidden. We can witness traffic accidents, for example, but it’s harder to observe the underlying structure that causes them.’

If you think that an organisation’s structure is represented on an organisation chart then think again.  Go even further in your thinking, consider the possibility that an organisation does not need a chart at all in the way we traditionally have one.  Aaron Dignan’s article The Org Chart is Dead explores some ideas around this, suggesting that ‘The problem with the not-so-modern org chart is that it presupposes that people generally hold one role, have one boss, and that both of those states are semi-permanent, at least in-so-far as the chart is worth printing and distributing.’

He rightly says that this is not the case as things are changing so fast in most organisations.  His view is that. ‘If Facebook is the social graph, we need an equally elegant solution to the organizational graph. This tool would be a living, breathing org chart — a dynamic network — combined with what I’m calling “GitHub for organizations.”’

A concept that is akin to this social graph are the ‘desire lines’ that urban planners work with, described by Robert Macfarlane, quoted in a Guardian article on the topic,  as “paths and tracks made over time by the wishes and feet of walkers, especially those paths that run contrary to design or planning”; he calls them “free-will ways”.

Similarly, Andrew Furman, a professor in interior design and architecture at Ryerson University in Toronto who has spent years looking at desire lines, says they illustrate “the endless human desire to have choice. The importance of not having someone prescribe your path”. In a heavily constructed city, there are “rules as to how public and public-private spaces are used”, he says. Desire paths are about “not following the script” … An individual can really write their own story. It’s something really powerful if you do have that agency to move.”

We may not want to go that far in an organisation but there are perhaps parallels in concepts of self-organising teams, and emergent strategy that suggest that rather than depict hierarchies, reporting lines, layers and spans we pick up on Dignan’s idea of ‘git hub for organisations’.

I wonder if the remote working, at least for white collar workers, triggered by Covid-19 heralds the end of the hierarchical organisation chart and its representations of command and control in various forms.  Interacting solely via technologies seems to having some impact on levelling hierarchies and allowing people close to the work to make decisions about it.

Didier Elzinga,  CEO Culture Amp, quoted in an HBR article,  believes that the shift to remote work will have profound implications for the organizational culture of big companies, especially when it comes to giving distributed teams autonomy to make their own decisions.

During the Covid-19 crisis his company has been holding a daily meeting with about 20 leaders ‘where they run through a deck of the latest information related to the crisis, which is then published on an open channel on Slack. Once they gave people the data they needed to contextualize their decisions, Elzinga and his team made an exciting discovery. Leaders were more comfortable distributing authority and allowing teams to make their own informed decisions, without wasting time chasing down information and approvals.’  Given the context and the data people can find their own paths and make the right decisions.

Here’s a suggestion:  Let’s divorce the concepts of organisation structure from its linkage to an organisation chart and formal hierarchies, instead looking at structure through a systems thinking lens in the way Karash describes.  Let’s then consider whether we need an organisation chart in any traditional form at all, and think about new forms of organisation ‘charts’, maybe dynamically depicting the desire lines of an organisation’s functioning rather like the ‘organisational github’ that Dignan talks about.

If we did this would we then be better able to design healthy organisations which avoided the maintenance of hierarchical structures which, Margaret Heffernan’s words produce perverse outcomes.’?   Let me know.

Image: Desire lines

Designing competency frameworks

I’m sceptical of the core competency frameworks in general.  They often seem to me to be over-engineered lists of a mix of skills, behaviours, and other attributes.  Frequently there is little obvious link to the delivery of the organisation’s strategy or values.  Note I am less sceptical about specific technical competencies to indicate skill in a field (e.g. architecture, nursing, or UX design)

Take the OECD’s (2014) set which divides competencies into technical competencies: specific to a discipline or field of practice and core competences.  Technical competencies are the ‘requirements to successfully perform a given job’ and in their case ‘are defined in job vacancy announcements.’

Their core competencies, on the other hand – those everyone should have – are described in a booklet.  OECD lists and describes fifteen core competencies  grouped into three clusters: delivery-related, interpersonal and strategic, and 5 levels (related to type of role).  Level 1 is roles including ‘assistant’ and ‘operator’, level 5 includes Heads of Function and Directors, giving a total of 75 statements.  This form of competency framework is common.   I’ll take the OECD one as an example of why I am sceptical:

The OECD competency ‘Analytical Thinking’ at level 1 lists:

  • Distinguishes between critical and irrelevant pieces of information.
  • Gathers information from a variety of sources to reach a conclusion.

And at Level 5 lists:

  • Is sought out by others for advice and solutions on how to best interpret and use information.
  • Discerns the level of pressure or influence to apply in each aspect of the analysis in relation to the broader context.

My scepticism on this sort of thing is based on my view that the items on such lists are:

  • Subjective e.g. a Director – Level 5 –  may not be able to distinguish between critical and irrelevant information(a Level 1 competency) and who is judging what is critical or irrelevant?
  • Not relatable to role or level e.g. an assistant, Level 1,  may be sought out by others for ‘advice and solutions on how best to interpret and use information’. (A Level 5 competence)
  • Not indicators of job performance as the context will influence the ability to deploy (or not) the competence.
  • Not conducive to being ‘levelled’ by role. Any role may require different levels of competence so an assistant my require some of the competence listed at Director level.  For example, what assistant does not have to handle ‘difficult on-the-spot questions (e.g. from senior executives) listed in this framework as a level 5 competence?

But these frameworks have lots of defenders.  Take a look, for example, at the SHL Universal Competency Framework or the UK’s CIPD Competency FrameworkFactsheet.

(I notice that the SHL (2011) info says firmly that we need to distinguish between the words ‘competence’ and ‘competencies’, because ‘it is unfortunate that two very similar words have been used to describe two very different constructs. It is essential that there is a clear distinction between these two terms.’   The CIPD (2020) explains that ‘In the past, HR professionals have tended to draw a clear distinction between ‘competences’ and ‘competencies’. … More recently however, there’s been growing awareness that job performance requires a mix of behaviour, attitude and skill, and the terms are now more often used interchangeably.’)  In this sort of distinction you start to see the difference between core and technical competences.  In some cases frameworks mesh these.  See, for example, the Actuarial Competency Framework.

One person who does not defend core competency frameworks is Marcus Buckingham, who says:

  • ‘Competencies can’t be measured. So, your scores (or the scores you give your team) and all the data around how much of a certain competency a person possesses are completely made up.
  • No single person possesses all competencies. When you study people who excel at a certain job, although as a group they may have all of the competencies that are supposedly required, no one person has all of them.
  • There is no data that shows that people who acquire the competencies they supposedly lack outperform the people who don’t. So even if we could accurately determine that you are lacking a specific competency, having you take a learning and development course to plug that gap will have no effect on your performance. Well-roundedness does not predict higher performance, and it’s better to be sharp in one or two key areas instead of well-rounded.’

The topic of competency frameworks came up this week as an organisation asked me for advice on them.  They had questions related to links between the framework and delivery of strategy and values, whether they needed core as well as technical competences, how to communicate the competences to the workforce in a simple and easy to use way.

What I’ve found is that organisational values are a very good basis against which to judge employee behaviour, attitude and contribution – assuming that you have chosen values that support delivery of your business strategy.  And last week I listened to Yancy Strickler saying much the same thing.  He is the founder of Kickstarter, and he was talking about ‘the values the company created, which helps guide the way Kickstarter attracts and hires talent and constructs and operates its business’.

Marcus Buckingham is also of the view that core ‘competencies are simply values. They should be written on a wall, not attempted to be measured and learned. If you want your team to be goal-oriented and customer service-focused; express them as values, create stories around them, celebrate the heroes who demonstrate them – bring these values to life.’

The organisation who I was discussing competency frameworks with have five values on which to judge an employee’s contribution.  Many organisations are now ‘values based’ – Ben and Jerry’s is a classic example as is Patagonia

I suggested that those in organisation I was talking with re-think their core competences, instead focusing on the values – not as a measurement tool in the traditional sense but to gauge whether people are going to be, in Patagonia’s terms, not a culture fit, but a ‘culture add’.  Patagonia’s values-based approach ‘to evaluating potential hires [is one] that arises from the company’s unwavering and ironclad commitment to its mission. And it’s a reminder to every organization that they are hiring human beings, not skill sets or even experience.’

For other aspects of workforce management – career development, technical progression, management/leadership development – I suggested they introduce technical competences by job family.   For an excellent example of a technical competency framework for designers look at Jason Mesut’s approach.  (Note that it also includes some core competencies).

To recap – I don’t think most core competency frameworks i.e. items listed in progressive order by level achieve their intended outcome of supporting individual or organisational performance management or enabling, in Mesut’s words. ‘a clear way of objectively promoting or compensating people fairly …  or providing clarity of what a long-term career in the organisation might look like or giving scarce and fickle talent a reason to stay.’   A better approach is to develop technical competency frameworks based on job families and for core competencies do not have a framework by lists and levels. Use only the organisation’s values and give clear and engaging messages that employees are expected to live the values in their daily work.

What’s your view on a traditional core competency framework?  Let me know.

Image:  Global competencies

Into white spaces

‘Black people need to be able to get into white spaces.  … Otherwise another four years comes and everyone’s doing another protest.’ (Aba Amoah, quoted in What next?’).

Reading this statement, reminded me of a book I read years ago by Geary Rummler and Alan Brache, Improving Performance: How to Manage the White Space in the Organization Chart.   The blurb reads, ‘This was the book that first detailed an approach that bridged the gaps between organization strategy, work processes and individual performance.’

Two decades later came an updated version White Space Revisited: Creating Value Through Process.  This edition ‘goes beyond a mere revision of that [first] ground breaking book and refocuses on the ultimate purpose of organizations, which is to create and sustain value.’

The white spaces that Rummler and Brache discuss – organisation strategy, work process, and individual performance, can (and do) harbour racism, exclusion, and sustaining of value through exploitative or demeaning practices.

Neither book mentions or addresses these types of ‘white spaces’ that have come into even starker focus since 25 May when the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis sparked on-going anti-racism protests in many countries.

Power is another of these white spaces and last week I wrote about sources of power in organisations, but did not mention it as a ‘white space’.  @EmRoseBaz commented on this as follows: ‘Hi Naomi, I love your work, but writing about power structures in organisations without talking about race and white supremacy is a big omission (whiteness confers power). See @georgeaye ‘s post on power in design (and every western org’s diversity stats!)’

It’s a good challenge. I hadn’t read George Aye’s article, and did so.  It’s a terrific and rich read with resources, ideas, and stories of Aye’s experience of the intersect of power,  organisation design and social justice.

He asks – ‘what as a designer can you do right now?’  And answers, ‘Let’s start by understanding that power is an underlying hidden mechanism in any human relationship. Everyone has a certain amount of power, and there’s always someone who has more than you and someone who has less than you. Let’s start with 3 simple sets of questions.’ The sets’ headings are ‘check your privilege (as a designer)’, ‘what’s your role (in transferring power)’ and ‘fire up your curiosity (by asking better questions)’, each set has three questions.

The links between organisational power – who holds the various types, how/where/when they deploy it – and racism are undeniable and yet, I feel racism is so complex and multifaceted, that looking at it only through this power lens won’t reveal other important aspects that organisation design could help address.

I’ve been mulling over and discussing this, not for the first time, with both organisation design and other colleagues – of various ethnicities, race and background – and with family members.

The conversations have covered power of various types, whether BAME (black, Asian and ethnic minorities) is a useful category, organisational language, recruitment and career progression, and performance management, societal treatment and day to day experiences.

The intersect between BLM and Covid-19 has also been part of the discussions.  That intersect offers a chilling illustration and some insights into black inequalities that organisation designers could/should consider.  For example, a 21 April 2020 New Scientist article notes that:

‘The most recent figures compiled by the UK’s Intensive Care National Audit and Research Centre suggests that of nearly 5000 people critically ill with covid-19 in England, Wales and Northern Ireland whose ethnicity was known, 34 per cent were from BAME backgrounds. But people from such groups make up only 14 per cent of the population of England and Wales.’

The article suggests several factors for this, saying: ‘It’s not about people’s biological make-up. It’s about the conditions that are created due to racialised policies, and how that’s impacted communities over time. For example, poorer, more disadvantaged people – who are disproportionately from ethnic minorities – are more likely to have underlying health problems such as heart disease, diabetes and obesity that put them at increased risk of covid-19’.

The article also cites racially biased algorithms and the types of jobs people do that may preclude social distancing. ‘In the UK, 18 per cent of black people work in caring, leisure and other services that are either essential or jobs that can’t easily be done from home. In the US, less than 20 per cent of black or African-American people can work from home.’

Additionally.  ‘Studies have found that people from BAME groups may be treated differently because of healthcare professionals’ unconscious bias … This creates a system of advantage based on race.  We have to take that into account when thinking about why we’re seeing differential impacts of covid-19.”

So, in this one article you can see:  racialised policies, implied access to types of work (and education that allows/limits that access), biased algorithms, unconscious bias, wage differentials and environmental conditions.  Reading the Public Health England report COVID-19: understanding the impact on BAME communities  reveals more detailed info.

Back to Aye’s question,  ‘what as a designer can you do right now?’  As I said, his article has excellent suggestions.   And beyond his, we can pick up on five questions (four of them discussed in the Economist article, The Great Awakening):

  • Where are the white spaces in our organisation? (This one is not in the article)
  • What is the evidence that blacks and other Asian and minority ethnicities are disadvantaged in our organisation?
  • How much can we do in our organisation to address this and how much do we have to encourage our organisational members to lobby in society as a whole
  • What impact does racial disadvantage, as reflected in our organisation, have on our organisation’s performance, credibility, and past/current/future reputation?
  • What can we do to improve matters?

As I reflect on these and continuing talking with colleagues on them, we will be working on our responses.  Meanwhile, this week I am reviewing the resource materials from a FutureLearn course I did last year Make Change Happen, considering again the tenth test of organisation design (the Equalities Test) that I proposed we introduce last year.  and listening to Afua Hirsch’s Audible podcasts We Need to Talk About the British Empire.

How will you answer the five questions above?  Let me know.

Image:  Business and race in America, The Economist

Covid 19: Power structures or power sources

The Johnson and Scholes cultural web is one that many in the organisation design/development field will be familiar with.  A full explanation of it is in G. Johnson’s chapter ‘Mapping and re-mapping organisational culture’ in V. Ambrosini with G. Johnson and K. Scholes (eds), Exploring Techniques of Analysis and Evaluation in Strategic Management, Prentice Hall, 1998.

It’s one that is well used.  Mindtools summarizes it, saying it comprises ‘six interrelated elements that help to make up what Johnson and Scholes call the “paradigm” – the pattern or model – of the work environment. By analysing the factors in each, you can begin to see the bigger picture of your culture: what is working, what isn’t working, and what needs to be changed. The six elements are:

  1. Stories – The past events and people talked about inside and outside the company.
  2. Rituals and Routines – The daily behavior and actions of people that signal acceptable behavior.
  3. Symbols – The visual representations of the company including logos, how plush the offices are, and the formal or informal dress codes.
  4. Organisational Structure – This includes both the structure defined by the organization chart, and the unwritten lines of power and influence that indicate whose contributions are most valued.
  5. Control Systems – The ways that the organization is controlled. These include financial systems, quality systems, and rewards (including the way they are measured and distributed within the organization).
  6. Power Structures – The pockets of real power in the company. This may involve one or two key senior executives, a whole group of executives, or even a department.’

Discussing this model with colleagues last week, led me to suggest that instead of ‘Power Structures’ we consider ‘Power Sources’ as that enables thinking of power in the multiple ways Gareth Morgan describes in his chapter in his book Images of Organization

Morgan says, ‘Power is the medium through which conflicts of interest are ultimately resolved.  Power influences who gets what, when and how.’  He goes on to say ‘the sources of power are rich and varied, providing those who wish to wheel and deal in pursuit of their interests with many ways of doing so’.  He then lists and discusses fourteen sources of power.

  1. Formal authority
  2. Control of scarce resources
  3. Use of organizational structure, rules and regulations  (On this one Morgan says, ‘The tensions surrounding the process of organisation design and resdesign provide many insights into organisational power structures’.)
  4. Control of decision processes
  5. Control of knowledge and information
  6. Control of boundaries
  7. Ability to cope with uncertainty
  8. Control of technology
  9. Interpersonal alliances, networks and control of informal organization
  10. Control of counter organizations
  11. Symbolism and the management of meaning
  12. Gender and the management of gender relations
  13. Structural factors that affect the stage of action
  14. The power one already has (personal power)

When I’m talking about Morgan’s sources of power, I add in a fifteenth – ‘Reputation and credibility’.

Thinking about the context and events now and of the last few months.  I’m watching all 15 sources of power playing out in organisations and in society and it’s notable that the Covid-19 pandemic seems to have amplified some of them.

Three that caught my attention during last week are:

Control of boundaries – the clearest one, for those now remote working, is the boundary between work and home life.  A recent newspaper article comments:  ‘Six weeks into a nationwide work-from-home experiment with no end in sight, whatever boundaries remained between work and life have almost entirely disappeared. … Burnt-out employees feel like they have even less free time than when they wasted hours commuting.’

In our discussions on culture last week for some the feeling of work overload came up, for others – those home schooling or working in shared accommodation, there’s an anxiety, for example, about appearing unprofessional when a child or dog bursts into Zoom view, or having flat mates hear sensitive information.  There are endless tips on controlling  current work/home boundaries but as one article says, ‘Very few guides, though, take into consideration the nuances of home life and the barriers different setups can impose on simply getting the job done.’

Observing the amplification of this source of power I wondered who it ‘belonged’ to.  Does the employer wield it as it raises some questions around job design, design of performance management, design of wellbeing and duty of care processes?  Or does the employee wield it in controlling (or not) his/her calendar and domestic responsibilities, or is it wielded by both parties (or other parties?)

Control of knowledge and information.  On this Morgan says, ‘power accrues to the person who is able to structure attention to issues in a way that in effect defines the reality of the decision-making process.’  In the Covid-19 crisis ways of handling information and knowledge vary from transparency (about what we know and don’t know) to deliberate decisions to censor or with-hold information, see, for example, an article from the Brookings Institute, Knowledge is power: Lessons learned from Italy’s coronavirus outbreak and also Nicholas Christakis video, Covid-19: social networks in which he talks about how health behaviors are contagious through social networks and the dangers of using formal/positional power to force with-holding of information. Among other examples, Christakis’s mentions the example of the Chinese doctor who tried to raise the alarm on Covid-19.

In the current situation where decisions are being made in a context of extreme volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA) it’s important to have access to, and use,  several trusted sources of data and expertise. (See Which Covid:19 data can you trust?’).  It’s also wise to exercise critical thinking on the information and knowledge you do have access to.

Ability to cope with uncertainty.  Morgan suggests there are two types of organisational uncertainty – environmental uncertainty and operational uncertainty.  Most organisations are now in both types of uncertainty. Seeing some organisations being able to wield this power and others failing utterly (read Sinking, Swimming and Surfing)  begs the question of how to design for weathering uncertainty – on this take a look some of the plethora of advice on designing organisational resilience e.g. McKinsey’s Navigating to the next normal: The first 100 insights

Do you think that power sources would be a more useful exploration than power structures in working with the Johnson and Scholes model of organisational culture?  Which of Morgan’s power sources have you seen amplified in the current situation?  Let me know.

Image: Gary Klein, Mapping the Sources of Power, The knowledge and abilities that come with experience.


When to stop a project

If  “the essence of strategy is choosing what not to do,” as Michael Porter famously said in a seminal HBR article, then the essence of execution is truly not doing it. That sounds simple, but it’s surprisingly hard for organizations to kill existing initiatives.’ HBR Too Many Projects

 What’s been going on in the last few months is a colossal disruption to strategies, plans to execute strategies and executing strategies.  As a 30th May 2020, Economist article, Lonely Planet, says, ‘The old rules have gone out of the window’ and new strategies are being developed and implemented but in an unfamiliar and unknown context.  The article is discussing the hotel, airline, tourism industries, saying ‘the shape of sectors from restaurants to hotels and luxury goods (which are often bought while people are on holiday), will depend on what tourism looks like when it is allowed to resume. Hotels and airlines are using the upheaval as an opportunity to rework how they function. Families are rethinking how and where they can safely take their holidays. Many of the changes will last only until a vaccine for covid-19 appears. But some will stick. How people start to travel in 2020—or 2021—will shape how they travel for years thereafter.’

The article describes the travel, hotel and tourism industry as ranging from ‘the abysmal to the apocalyptic’.  Industry leaders are trying to work with priorities such as, ‘making things easier to clean and reducing touchpoints that will change the economics of providing travel services’.  Other changes include what ‘Brian Chesky, Airbnb’s boss, calls travel redistribution: people taking trips to out-of-the-way places rather than the usual metropolises.’  Or ‘Even more striking, many people booking properties within 50 miles (80km) of where they live, with the majority within 200 miles. Being able to drive home is useful if lockdown conditions change suddenly.’

The Economist article points out that, ‘Not all these changes will be universal. People have diverse tastes, different reasons to travel and varying appetites for risk. … the in-flight experience may change much less in the long term. … Crucial things—such as the middle seat on airplanes—will not disappear. Airlines are clear that it would destroy their business model, which requires around two-thirds of seats to be filled to make a profit.  Observant travellers will notice tweaks.’

Not all industries and sectors are as massively disrupted as travel, hotel and tourism but many are operating in similar conditions of uncertainty.    This uncertainty means making choices and decisions on which existing projects to continue with which to stop altogether, which to put on hold, which to rein in and which to continue.  (It also means determining what projects to initiate and how to switch/allocate resources to do that).

There are no easy answers, but I was asked to provide formal guidance for people in the OD & D arena trying to make decisions on pre-Covid 19 projects – what criteria should inform their advice on whether to stop, hold, rein in, continue projects that were in hand.   What came out of my research and thinking about the situation is this:



Thoughtful and sensitive management of organisational change projects supports an organisation’s business performance, enables their staff to work safely, helps enhance the organisational reputation and makes the organisation a good place to work.

During this period of covid-19 uncertainty, project managers and key stakeholders need to carefully consider:

  • The criteria for stopping or pausing a planned change project (and by implication the criteria for continuing with it)
  • The methods for keeping the decision to halt a project under review
  • The process for re-starting, maintaining a pause, or permanently stopping a change project


This guidance applies to all organisational design/development/change projects where OD & D practitioners are the key stakeholders and/or advising key stakeholders.  The guidance frames the conditions in which a change project should be continued, paused, or stopped completely.

It does not apply to major programmes or to projects and programmes that have no significant impact on the OD & D sphere of interest.


There is no general suspension of planned projects at this point.  But many are changing shape/scope as they prioritise covid-19 response.   This is a time of significant disruption that requires careful judgement calls and a balancing of immediate needs with longer term goals and objectives.

It is likely that as we move out of business continuity/crisis mode into recovery, we will be in a future that is different to the one the change was planning for pre Covid19.

Thus, we must consider the ‘fit’ of the change project in a future that we cannot currently predict or outline in the same way we felt we could pre covid-19.

Generally, consider stopping or pausing a change project if one or more of the criteria below apply:

  1. The project’s objectives cannot be met within the budget and timescale
  2. The project can be completed but it will not create or deliver the intended benefits in the immediate and/or possible future
  3. The organisation/business unit’s assumptions have changed i.e. from ‘normal’ to covid-19 mobilisation and it may not be the “right” project to work on right now, given competing priorities for time, knowledge, skills, other resources, etc.
  4. The context has changed and will continue to be in a state of change for some time and it is felt/decided that the ROI or benefits expectations will not be met either now or in the possible future
  5. The schedule has slipped significantly or is likely to shift significantly and it will incur additional costs to bring it back to a completion schedule
  6. There are delivery difficulties beyond the capabilities of those working on it to manage e.g. remote working complications, team member redeployments, team member sickness etc
  7. Key people have left the project or are likely to leave the project through furlough or redeployment to other/covid-19 work.
  8. There has been a significant change in the organisation/business unit’s interest and strategy and this is likely to continue for some time
  9. The key sponsor has moved on leaving a sponsor vacuum
  10. The impacts of the change on people could cause undue stress and overload as they may already be stressed by covid-19 conditions


Think about your organisation.  What guidance would you give on projects that were in train pre-Covid-19 and may (or may not) be relevant currently and in the immediate future?  Let me know.