Organisation design: time changes understanding

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Learning points from this activity, include considering ways of

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

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


Organisation Design: Boundaries and Linkages

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Eleven Questions about Linkages and Enablers

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

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

Organisation design:  ownership and positioning

The question that appeared in my inbox this week was, ‘What articles can you point me to that challenge the positioning of org design under HR v COO/Strategy?’

The quick answer is that they are thin on the ground.  A scan of the 92 open access articles in the Journal of Organisation Design has none.  Neither does a search under keyword ‘HR’ of all the journal issues.   Therefore, onwards to DeepDyve and Researchgate

Deepdyve showed 52k results for the keywords ‘organisation design’ which seemed like a long list to trawl through.  I added HR as a keyword and the list reduced to 1,900 becoming much more manageable. But skimming down the list they were mainly about the design of HR functions. 

Researchgate doesn’t tell you how many items are found under the keywords entered (at least I couldn’t see it).  However, numerous pages down, the search yielded Organisation Design & Development and the Relationship with HRM, Reason Chivaka, February 2018. The author doesn’t tackle the positioning issue though.

In the absence of articles (if you know of any let me know), here’s my  take.  

Think of organisation design both as a noun and as a verb.  The organisation design (noun) is, in my view, owned by the CEO/Executive as it is they who are accountable for the effective operation of the organisation.   But they have to accept that they are the ‘owners’ and take an active part in keeping the design optimum.  It requires continuous attention and monitoring. 

According to Tom Peters, “Design should be on the agenda of every meeting in every single department”.  As I say in my forthcoming book, 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.

Where leaders perceive a need to design or redesign, they tend to delegate that work to designers, consultants or others. In the first instance, this is usually, not HR.

It is the organisational positioning of the people, processes and activities involved in this design work i.e. designing (verb) that my questioner was asking about.

Many functions lay claim to owning the organisation designing work:  enterprise architects, business architects, strategy functions, HR functions and service designers are amongst them.  Each discipline has a legitimate claim to owning it and each often has a methodology to use to work through it.  These competing claims and different frames through which to view the design work can lead to fragmentation of approach across an organisation which can bring less than optimal results.

The fragmentation challenge is greater if external consultants are used, each with their own way of doing design. The organisation will benefit by identifying and communicating one set of OD methods for use by the whole organisation – wherever the designers are from, but the set has to be generated from a genuine and ongoing collaboration between the various parties that feel they own doing the design work. 

Again , in my forthcoming book, I discuss the question of who owns and does the design work, noting that the answer to this is influenced by the assumptions, beliefs and cultures of the organisational members.  

For example, in some organisations the CEO and/or the leadership team crafts the high-level design ‘in a darkened room’ i.e. not involving employees or other stakeholders.  In others, leaders simply mandate a design change without co-creation, rigorous data analysis or insight into how to make their decision work in practice, handing the design and implementation task over to someone else. 

In some cases, consultants are brought in to lead on a developing a design, which is then presented to the CEO/leadership team. While in others the employees fully participate in co-creating a new design.

A 2020 report by Metalogue, surveying the organisation design landscape noted: ‘At one extreme, design was undertaken by the CEO with no consultation with the executive [team]- and at the other, there was wide involvement of a range of internal and external stakeholders. In general, not involving critical stakeholders led to problems at the implementation phase. However, involving too many stakeholders without careful consideration, led to disruption, slowing, or hijacking of the process.’

In day-to-day practice, the question of who carries out the design is a delicate balancing act. Margaret Hagan, who runs the Open Law Lab and is involved in working on how design can improve the justice system, refers to this as tensions between mandate and movement.  Mandate represents top-down directives from a core group, often the CEO and/or leadership team, while movement represents the involvement and participation of stakeholders.

Although HR is often associated with organisation design, and the UK’s CIPD has HR practitioner  competences for organisation design,  the HR function is only one of the players – usually handling only the ‘people’ aspects once a design has been chosen and there are plans to transition to it.  (I’ve frequently heard HR practitioners say they are brought into the design work far too late).   

Organisation designing is far more than designing the people aspects of the organisation.   Designing requires consideration of the work, the people, the formal organisation, and the informal organisation, all in relation to delivering the organisation’s purpose and strategy. 

There are several possible places to position organisation designing (verb):

  • Andrew Sturdy and Nick Wylie,  in a Bristol University policy paper on where to position change activity in an organisation (consider organisation design a change activity)  offer four possibilities around the managerial role, which are worth considering.   
  • Maintaining a multidisciplinary design team, led by the Chief Operating Officer or Strategy Director, works well in some situations.  The people on the team (both internal and external) being selected for the knowledge, skills and expertise related to that specific piece of design work, from a pool of designers.

In each of these possibilities HR is one of the design team but the skills are neither positioned nor (solely) held in the HR function.

 ‘Who owns the organisation design in your organisation?  Who owns the organisation design process?’  Let me know.


Organisation design: reading list

Last week someone sent me an email, saying: ‘I eagerly await your blog every week and set aside time to follow all the links you include.   It got me wondering – what blogs do you follow? What magazines do you subscribe to?  I’d love to get your reading lists, you make such interesting connections and my curious brain would love to follow what you follow.’

The hardcopy magazines I subscribe to are:  New Scientist, Economist, Big Issue, I read these three from cover to cover noting bits and bobs that catch my attention for a tweet, a link to a blog piece, or a thought I could pick up later.   

I have a folder on my laptop called ‘newsletters’, and it’s easy enough for me to answer the question “what am I reading?” by listing out all the items that drop into the folder. 

Skimming down it (see extract in image) I see I get about 50 different email newsletters per week – some are daily, some are weekly.   It’s a mix of topics, reflecting my curiosity and interests and the way I believe organisation design is touched, influenced and challenged by the interdependence/interactions of numerous interdisciplinary threads. 

The list isn’t static, I’m pretty ruthless on culling the ones I no longer read, or that have lost relevance to my work.  There are many others I’ve had over the years which I now don’t get. Sometimes I subscribe to a new one, perhaps one recommended by someone or one that I’ve come across in my blog research.  For example, two weeks ago, I subscribed to the newsletter from the Centre for Death and Society which I came across as I was writing my blog on death discussions in organisations.   (I think this topic will develop further in organisation design/development).

But the additions are not quite on a one in/one out basis.  What I’ve noticed is that I tend to keep the total coming in each week to about 50.  It’s a manageable number, and collectively provides a reasonable pool of ideas, challenges, insights and different perspectives.   The tweets I post each day are pretty much all sourced from the newsletters that come my way.

The newsletters and hardcopy mags I get I’ve put into rough categories below and given a few thoughts on why I get them. NOTE the categories also overlap somewhat in content. They are not discrete.

I haven’t put in all the links as it would take me too long and garden design calls, but they are all available for you to Google (google?) and take a look at. 

Technology:  All organisation designers (+ leaders/managers) must have a good grasp on what’s going on in the world of tech.  We live with it every day, we can’t avoid it, and our organisations, personal lives, and society as a whole, are utterly dependent on it.  We do read about the impact of technology on the world of work but that’s not really enough. Some technologies are being developed which are not currently talked about in relation to work, but I think will be. 

So, I get the daily TechCrunch, MIT Tech Review, Open Data Institute, Post*Shift Linklog, Information Week.  Take a look at Tech Crunch’s 18 September China Roundup, and see if you think this will what signals is this sending, what repercussions might it have in your organisation? 

News:  Keeping up with the news and business news (two different things) is hard.  ‘News’ selection is subjective, (why are plane crashes – people killed worldwide in 2020 = 229,  more newsworthy than road deaths – people killed worldwide in 2020 = 1.3 million?).  So what I consider news may not be what someone else does.  Nevertheless, it seems to be enough for my purposes to read The Economist, and get one of their daily newsletters, plus Positive News (we definitely need that), The Guardian, and Quartz.   Occasionally I look at the BBC website, or at the FT and WSJ -but the latter are both paywalled, although I have had a WSJ subscription in the past.

Business updates/comments:  Keeping up with what is going on in thinking around business and management is essential.  There’s a lot of info on business savvy, and I think it’s one of the areas of knowledge that organisation designers (+ leaders/managers) need to focus on.  It’s not enough to know about ‘your’ industry/sector – there’s much that can be learned from the way other industries/sectors do things.  In this category I get info from MIT Sloan Management Review, and Harvard Business Review (I’ve had subscriptions to these two in the past too), HBR Business Books,   Others I get are Stanford Business email (fortnightly), and some from the big 5 consultancies – Accenture, Deloitte, Bain, McKinsey, ReSolutions (I just subscribed to this a few weeks ago), Raconteur, Campaign, Workplace Insight,  De-growth, World@Work, knowledge@wharton, Insead knowledge,

‘Brain food’, culture, society:  I take the phrase ‘brain food’ from the FS blog of the same name.  That blog is thoughtful and provocative and was recommended to me a good while ago, and it’s one I’ve stuck with, although there are several others I enjoy of the same ilk – Brain Pickings, The Big Think, Action for Happiness, Aeon,, Greater Good Science Center, RSA (Royal Society of Arts), On Being.

Some in this category that are more specific to organisation design and development are Culturevist, The Ready, rebels@work,  Leandro Herrero’s daily thoughts (often make me laugh – they’re attuned to my experiences), Cognitive Edge, Stanford Center for Social Innovation, Complexity and Management, Systems Innovation Initiative, Intersection Group, Corporate Rebels.

Science:  I’ve already mentioned New Scientist, which I get as hardcopy and also get some of their other newsletters/updates.  I’ve long been a fan of Science Daily. It is a summary of research across the spectrum and there’s often some research going on that is fascinating and relevant to the organisational world.  Take a look at Leader effectiveness may depend on emotional expression

Think tanks/government/politics:  The external governmental geo-political arena sets a framework for organisational operation. I feel that organisation design/development depends on a reasonable level of awareness of the relationship between government decisions and the impact of these on an organisation’s design. For example, see the Apple/Google /Russian Government news this week – causing me to ask what are the organisational decision processes that led to that Apple/Google decision?  What are the design implications of the decision?  What are the stakeholder ramifications, etc. 

I also get newsletters from the UK’s Civil Service World, GovInsider (Asia Pacific), occasional news from the Doughnut Economics Action Lab, Strategic Reading, Reform (a UK think tank), Nesta (ditto).

Summary: All in all I spend some time every day skimming through what’s come in. You’ve got a taster of my current list.   What are you reading that relates in some way to organisation design?  Let me know.   

Organisation design and millennials

‘In order to keep the Millennial generation analytically meaningful, and to begin looking at what might be unique about the next cohort, Pew Research Center decided [in 2018] to use 1996 as the last birth year for Millennials for our future work. Anyone born between 1981 and 1996 (ages 23 to 38 in 2019) is considered a Millennial, and anyone born from 1997 onward is part of a new generation.’  25 – 40 now.

I looked up the birth years of Millennials when I was invited to be interviewed for a book that is being written.  The intent behind the book is to share a collection of strategies that will help the next wave of Millennial leaders find their next (or first) executive role.  In my case, the authors were particularly interested in helping Millennials, applying for an executive role, think about, and answer interview questions on their approaches to organisation design.   

Preparing for the interview, initially I wondered what the cultural boundaries are of ‘Millennialism’ i.e. is it a US/UK/Europe predominant label or is it global and are their common characteristics across nationalities, ethnicities, language, etc?

I don’t know the answer but the Deloitte 2021 Global Survey of Millennials and Gen  Z ‘solicited the views of 14,655 millennials and 8,273 Gen Zs from 45 countries across North America, Latin America, Western Europe, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Asia Pacific’, and aggregated them into a single report, so I took that as a start-point.

It’s worth reading. The conclusion states.  ‘Emerging from one of the most difficult years of their lives, millennials and Gen Zs are more downbeat that at any time during the 10 years they’ve been surveyed … They’re tired of waiting for change to happen and are taking action to hold others accountable. But they understand their actions as individuals can do only so much to reverse climate change, create pay and wealth equality, and end racism and bigotry. They want organizations to work together—governments, educational systems, and business—to drive change on a much broader scale. … they want to work for companies with a purpose beyond profit—companies that share their values—and in ones where they feel empowered to make a difference.’

To my mind this argues for the millennials seeking executive roles to really question and probe whether they would have the power to change the organisation’s design, if it did not meet those sorts of aspirations (and whether they would want to work for an organisation that doesn’t share those aspirations).   

 But for the moment stick with the idea that it is the millennials being asked questions by the interview panel.  Below, I’ve briefly answered the list of interview questions the book people sent me, with the comment, ‘We likely won’t ask you these questions directly in order to maintain the spontaneous nature and energy of the interview authentic. We’re sharing these to help jog your memory and guide the discussion so we can keep the “spirit” of helping millennial leaders consistent.’   (It’ll be interesting to see the write-up/interpretation of the actual interview which was a lot more free-flowing than the q & a here). 

Why is org design important for people in executive roles? Tom Peter’s view is that “Design is so critical, it should be on the agenda of every meeting in every single department”  (Unfortunately, I can’t find the original source of this – if anyone knows it please let me know, maybe it was in the book In Search of Excellence) and I agree. Why?  Because good design translates an organisation’s purpose, strategy, and business model into execution, delivery and high performance.  Think of the bike race analogy – every element of winning a race is carefully designed to achieve that purpose.  (See the HBR article on this).

What is the difference between org chart and org structure? I’ve written several blogs on organisation charts and organisational structures.  For example, Talking about organisation charts, and What I talk about when I talk about structure . The chart and the structure are very different things. 

What is considered a bad org structure vs a good org structure?  I don’t know that there is a ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Some organisational structures (not charts) are better than others for a specific context and a specific organisation.  I have a handout on questions to ask about structure and also a blog on the topic, Questions to ask about structures,  which helps with some assessment. 

How do millennials answer and use the “Tell me about how was [XYZ] organization structured?” to their advantage in an interview?  This could only be answered well if the millennial was asked to talk about an organisation in their experience.  It’s a good question to have a prepared answer for.  There are thousands of case studies looking at organisations and the way they are designed.  Look for example at Business Case Studies  or Ivey Publishing . Reading through some of these would give the applicant ideas on how to frame an answer.    

How should millennials answer situational questions like “How would you structure our organization if you were to take this role?”   Assuming the millennial being questioned thinks the same way as those in the Deloitte survey, then they can pick up on aspects of the human centred organisation that Emanuele Quintarelli discusses in his organisation design work. Look too at the Intersection Group and Cocoon Pro .

What are some before and after case study stories of millennials who got org design wrong and what happened after it was turned around?   Words like ‘wrong’ are judger rather than learner centric.  A millennial could propose that ‘wrong’ could be framed as a learning event – look at the helpful resources on fail forward.  Stripe is an interesting case study of an organisation whose founders,  Patrick and John Collison are millennials, (born 1988 and 1990) appear to have this experimental, curious mindset that frames setbacks or failures not as ‘wrong’ but something to adjust/learn from.  Listen to an excellent podcast with Patrick, the CEO.  

What hacks, strategies, frameworks or words of wisdom would help aspiring executives in answering organisation design questions?   A person who can give examples of applying/not applying the following skills to any organisation design work they have led themselves or been involved in, be equipped with a basis for design awareness:

looking at the whole picture;

recognising that patterns change;

seeing that feedback loops exist, and that some nodes are more powerful than others;

acknowledging that different perspectives give different insights;

knowing that cause and effect can be delayed and chaotic, and may not appear related;

exploring the short-term, long-term and unintended consequences of action.

What is your 80/20 list for demonstrating organisation design experience/expertise.  It’s mostly about systems and people’s behaviours and interactions in systems.  I advise people to take a systems programme for example Systems Thinking in Practice

How would you answer the questions above?  Let me know.  

Organisation design: death discussions

In 2014 Tikker watches came to Kickstarter.  I bought one.   It was ‘designed to provide you with a constant reminder that life is truly short and we should take advantage of the time we have on this planet.   The Tikker System will give you an estimate of your life expectancy and then counts down every second so you can make choices that will enhance your life …  Buy one now and you will see how it immediately and positively affects you and those around you.    Start a new way of looking at life today!’  

I got it because I was doing a ToDo Institute Naikan programme, and there was some emphasis on how to live the 30,000 days of an average lifespan.  I wanted to know how many days I had left and stay alert to how I was spending the days and how I would like to have spent them or imagined myself spending the rest of them.  

Three years later, not because I’d lost interest in this but because it has become an ingrained and habitual way of thinking about my life, I put it on Freecycle and someone who had a countdown to launching his new business came for it. 

In fact, I got more interested in death and ways to approach it and last year trained to be a non-religious funeral celebrant.  But I am finding I am less interested in the one-off tribute at a funeral aspect and more interested in the social processes, systems, routines, rituals, planning and preparations for the ending of life.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, looking for some Humans Systems Dynamics Institute  (HSDI) resources for something completely unrelated to death or end of life, I saw a page on their website on Patterns with Death.  This resulted in two conversations – the first with Glenda Eoyang (HSDI)  and the second with Glenda and Liz Coenen about death – the rituals of it, the differing social attitudes towards it, the ripples that it precipitates, and the types of support people seek (or not) as they come into closer contact with death. (Note: there is an HSDI Facebook group on Patterns with Death)

These conversations have brought to mind a conversation I had sometime last year with Milan Guenther on the concept of hospices for enterprises.  We felt that there was too little recognition that organisations have a life cycle – they get stuck in the notion of phases of growth – per the classic Larry Greiner model. We wanted to see models of organisational lifecycle through decline to final ending become as commonplace as the growth model. Further we were interested in how these ending stages could be designed and managed well. (See the book: Organizational Pathology: Life and Death of Organizations)

Now, again wondering about this, I came across a special edition Culture and Organisation (2014, Volume 1, Issue 1) on exactly that topic.  Emma Bell introduced the articles in the journal saying, ‘Death is an integral part of organizational life, not only in talk and symbolism but also in a very real physical sense.  Despite numerous examples which illustrate the importance of organizational death as a meaning-making construct, scholars of organization have only rarely treated death as an explicit focus of study.’

Bell notes that, ‘The term ‘organizational death’ encompasses a wide range of individual and collective level phenomena. We were initially concerned with the metaphorical use of the term, either by researchers or by organization members, to account for the cessation of organizational function, for example, in situations of corporate closure or shutdowns of production units. Issues of organizational mortality, discontinuity and decline are particularly prescient in the wake of the global financial crisis; industrial and economic downturn, corporate failure, downsizing and plant closure have material, social and psychological effects on societies, organizations, groups and individuals. Organizational death can thus constitute a profound source of loss and suffering through the removal of fundamental structures of work-related meaning.’

As a note of caution, Tony Walter, Centre for Death and Society, University of Bath, in his paper Organizations and death – a view from death studies, which is in the special issue – says that speaking or thinking ‘of the ending of an organisation, or part of it, as organisational ‘death’, possibly followed by some kind of resurrection or reanimation ..  is a conceptually more problematic metaphorical use of the word ‘death’; and like all metaphors, may be useful for certain purposes if used appropriately, but misleading if taken too far.’

As well as the metaphorical death, Walters discusses four other forms of death in his paper:

  • Most obviously, individual members of organisations die and suffer personal bereavements; a member of the organisation or someone close to a member dies – with consequences not only for several individuals but also for the organisation or part thereof.
  • Organisations may cause, or at least contribute to, people’s deaths, for example through medical intervention, poor communication, harmful products, incompetent service, industrial accident, or suicide.
  • The food industry relies on the rearing of animals for slaughter and the subsequent processing of their remains
  • There is the question of whether, and if so how, awareness and/or denial of our mortal human condition affects the way people behave in organisations and what they expect from organisations.

Regardless of the form of death, talking about it of and in organisations often causes discomfort.  For example, the UK organisation Cruse Bereavement Care,  notes that, ‘For many employers, it can be difficult to know how to respond when an employee is bereaved, and how to ensure that the impact on both the individual and the organisation is minimised. With one in ten people in the UK likely to be affected by bereavement at any one time, employers can benefit from planning ahead.’

This ‘planning ahead’ is part and parcel of designing ways of working with and talking about death. Done well, it could support the purpose driven approach to organisation design that many advocate.  Emma Bell, again in her comments on the articles in the special issue of Organization and Culture, mentioned earlier, makes the point,  ‘It is only by coming to terms with the inescapable nature of death as a universal parameter and a constituent part of life that we can discard mechanistic, reductionist theories in favour of a more meaningful working life … all these writers show that death goes to the heart of what it is to experience life in organizations; we therefore cannot understand the meaning of organization without acknowledging death.

Knowing that individuals only have around thirty thousand days of life, and many organisations espouse notions of making work meaningful – should organisation designers introduce and work with concepts of death?  Let me know.

Endnote:  A London School of Economics blog, February 2021, estimates that 15.1% of UK businesses, registered and unregistered, are ‘at risk’ of permanent closure in 2021.  That is a lot of people affected by organisational ‘death’. 

Image:  Dying Matters

The future of organisation design

March of Intellect”, by William Heath, 1828 depicts future ideas for transport that would not be so unimaginable today

Last week this email arrived: “I hope this note finds you well. We are in the final weeks of the organisation design program for cohort 2. Your slot, part of session 10, is ‘the future of Organisation Design’. You can have up to 45 minutes right after the opening. Will you want to include some slides? … “.

Although I’m told that the session outline is ‘straightforward’ – mine is the slot after the session on reflections on session 9 – the topic itself is not straightforward. I ask myself, ‘What is the future of organisation design?’

Sometimes, in training courses, I’ve shown one of the several ‘from-to’ graphics showing the future of organisations. Look, for example, at Tanmay Vora’s sketchnote that goes ‘from purpose to profit’, from ‘hierarchies to networks’,  etc. or the Booz & Co from analogue to digital culture which has, among other dimensions, from process and task orientation to result orientation.

 It’s easy to get seduced by these ‘from-to’ graphics: they look good, and appear convincing.   But are they the future of organisation design? I no longer think so. They imply a smooth movement, from left to right, in a stable context.   We are not in a stable context. 

 In my forthcoming book I say: ‘The late South African economist Ludwig Lachmann once wrote: “The future is unknowable, though not unimaginable”.  … Because we can imagine different futures, we can act to create the better version. We have the creative ability to draft scenarios and possible outcomes, so we can prepare for what is more likely to be. And [we can] attempt to bring it about.

 There is a design tension inherent in designing for what is in front of us in the immediate future and what we imagine in the further out future. …  Leaders and designers must recognise and manage that tension, perhaps taking guidance from the authors of the book The Design Way, who say “Design is the ability to imagine that-which-does-not-yet-exist, to make it appear in concrete form as a new, purposeful addition to the real world”.

We can do this by acknowledging that the immediate future is not entirely unpredictable. Specific future events and trends may be unpredictable, but it is possible to envisage the implications of possibilities as sets of potential actions that the organisation may have to be ready for, and designed to take. ‘ 

Taking that perspective means detecting signals in the current, unstable context that we could take forward as possibilities into the future, searching for patterns the signals generate, and making collective meaning from the signals and patterns. (See article ‘On the role of collective sensing and evolution in group formation’). These activities give rise to scenarios that it is possible to imagine and, take some steps to prepare for.

Three newish signals that I noted this week that caused me to think about the possible future of organisation design are: 

 Metaverses: These are a shared online space that incorporate 3D graphics, either on a screen or in virtual reality. They came up in the New Scientist article that piqued my interest, not least because it mentioned Second Life , launched in 2003, which I used about 3 years later when I was doing some work with the American Red Cross.   At that point I had high hopes that Second Life would become integral to organisation design, but it didn’t happen. Now I see Roblox  co-founder, David Baszucki, saying  “Just as the mail, the telegraph, the telephone, text and video are utilities for collaborative work, we believe Roblox and the metaverse will join these as essential tools for business communication.” Maybe he’s right?  

 Metaverses give rise to a possible scenario of big tech companies holding in their thrall all their users, having access to their users’ data, and being able to control their users in various ways – extending this one can imagine big tech will someday supersede governments, and change the idea of national borders. People will be nationals of a metaverse. (See the novel,  He, She, and It by Marge Piercy for a variant of this idea).   How would organisations be designed in this scenario?

Individuals as networks:  I then read a fascinating piece on individual selves as networks. It says, ‘[Individual] selves are not only ‘networked’, that is, in social networks, but are themselves networks. By embracing the complexity and fluidity of selves, we come to a better understanding of who we are and how to live well with ourselves and with one another’. It’s left me wondering if and how this could influence organisation design.  I’m thinking it  may give a different take on the phrase ‘bring your whole self to work’, and also challenge current approaches to health and wellbeing that organisations are increasingly preoccupied with. 

 A scenario that could come from this is one of very different career paths, skills assessments, and employment expectations as our networked self focuses on different or new aspects of itself.

 Gillian Tett’s book: Anthro-visionprovides a compelling case for using anthropological approaches to business life (and by extension, organisation design). You can listen to an excellent video of her talking about this and I came away thinking that her view gave impetus to ‘human centred’ organisation design in an actionable way. Thanks to the EODF newsletter for the link. 

The interview brought to my mind the various Covid-19 legacies around building design/ventilation, biophilia, etc.  The pandemic has brought to the forefront the relationship between physical space design and human performance. Typically, organisation designers and facilities managers/workplace designers are siloed. A scenario that could play out is one where organisation design and workplace design are integrated, perhaps using tools like digital twinning to model human and workplace design options.   This could give organisations a very different design from currently envisaged ones – much as 3D printing has enable innovative building design

Three more ubiquitous signals came up again this week – ones that are now becoming patterns.

Geo political landscape shifts. Think how many organisations have had a recent high-profile brush with governments in a way that has forced re-design of aspects of the business. Amazon, Alibaba, Uber, Google, Facebook are some that spring immediately to mind.  Think too of other effects of geo-political shifts, for example, on supply chains (e.g. semiconductors). These will have profound effects on the design of organisations. Will multinationals exist in the future? 

Cyber security/threats – recent ransomware attacks have had a crippling effect on some organisations, for example ‘In the recent Colonial Pipeline and JBS attacks, cybercriminals disrupted gasoline and meat supplies, causing an artificial run on both commodities.’ Given the acceleration in such attacks what are the organisation design implications?   

Climate-tech This article notes that ‘many corporate giants are going beyond hollow commitments of greenery and “net zero” carbon pledges by investing directly in climate tech’, again these actions will change the design of organisations.

 Answering the question ‘what is the future of organisation design?’ is best answered by saying there are multiple possible futures. A further question to ask is ‘how do you design organisations to prepare for an unknown but not unimaginable future’. Is your organisation doing this? Let me know.

Reviews and reflections

Often, triggered by my blog or other channel, people send me articles or reports or similar that they think will be of interest to me.     Although it can take me a while to get round to reading whatever they’ve sent, I usually find that the document does hold something that is of interest and I’m grateful to have been sent it. 

This week I’ve managed to read five things I’ve been sent, and I’ll briefly explain why I was interested. (Note the stuff I’m focusing on here is not related to specific pieces of work I am doing like Terms of Reference, or project plans. What I’m talking about here is info that is sent my way as part of my general interest in organisation design).

But first, a slight – but relevant – digression. I get the FS newsletter, and this week’s linked to an excellent article about attentive reading, making the point that, ‘Consuming information is not the same as acquiring knowledge. No idea could be further from the truth.’ The article made me stop and think whether I was just consuming information from the 5 documents, or actually acquiring knowledge.   

Thus,  I re-read the documents asking myself, ‘What reflections or questions come out of my reading of this?’ Below some thoughts on the five pieces. (NOTE: I am not endorsing any organisation or its products/services). 

 The Future of HR – seen through two different lenses:  (From Kennedy Fitch). I was sent this because I was one of the people interviewed as part of the research. The goal was to discover if the near future (up to 2025) of HR and the world of work look the same for two distinct groups of people – HR practitioners and ‘thinkers’ about the world of work who are also known for their views on the HR function.  

It’s a well-structured report, clearly laying out the thinker and practitioner stance on each topic area covered.  It discusses first where the agreement between the two groups lay, and second where the differences lay. For example, on the topic of trends, both groups agreed that three major trends will impact the world of work: accelerated digitalisation, personalisation and flexibility.   However, the two groups offered further, and different trends beyond these three. The practitioner group talking about speed of business, diversity and teamwork, while the thinkers talked about expectations of private sector companies, role shifts/empowerment, and management and organisation development across geographies.

 As I was reading it, some questions came to mind:  the report focuses on private sector organisations, would its findings hold true for public sector and third sector ones? 

 I wondered how HR functions would actually make the shift suggested in the report – how is the education and training of HR practitioners adapting? Is it in tune with these findings? 

Four times the word ‘brave’ is used as in ‘the HR function needs to be brave’.   What does it take to be brave? Are HR practitioners capable of this? What would be in it for them if they were?  Does the report miss an opportunity to explore this offering real practical examples and suggestions on what it takes to become a brave HR function?

 Point of View Paper The Slingshot Effectand research report Fit For Change. Both pieces tackle ‘trying to get momentum for transformation out of the ongoing meta-crises.’   (From Prophet)

The two reports cover similar ground on what it takes to make transformative change, using their Human Centred Transformation Model™. They use the analogy of the human individual, talking about organisational DNA, mind, body and soul. The Fit for Change report offers some suggestions for making the transformational change and there’s a ‘new model for change fitness’ that would make an interesting workshop discussion, that talks about obstacles, milestones, journeys, flows, and plays. The Slingshot report offers four pathways to create organisational resilience. Again, this would make the basis of a structured workshop discussion, particularly if it focused on what would taking each of the four pathways mean in practice (and are we already on one of the paths).  

 However, having said this, what I’m left with after reading these two reports is some unease with the implied promise that there are easy answers – ‘follow this path and you’ll get there.’ Is this true?  To my mind, we are all currently, in a massive learning experiment. We don’t know yet what the impact of the last year is or will be, we are feeling our way. 

Remember the lines from the poem by Antonio Machado, ‘Traveler, there is no path, The path is made by walking. By walking the path is made’ ?  I wonder if there are ways of giving ourselves and each other confidence that ‘feeling our way’ is the only way and we must do this collaboratively, collectively and reflectively?  This question left me to ponder another question: how do we give ourselves and each other confidence to work in a situation where there is no prior path (and no right answer)?

 The ebook  fromOrgvue produced in support of their Hybrid Working Future campaign – ‘The hybrid working blueprint offers ‘5 steps to make hybrid working work for your business strategy’. I’ve written before on hybrid working so won’t repeat here. What the orgvue report offers, beyond the 5 steps, is a SaaS platform/solution on which you can make people related ‘data-driven decisions on how to continuously adapt and do better in the future’. In some organisations I’ve worked in, orgvue has been in use so I have some familiarity with it   

 The questions that I’m mulling having read their report are around the data that is captured – how is it interpreted and by whom?  The point made by statistician, Nate Silver sprang to mind, ‘The numbers have no way of speaking for themselves. We speak for them. We imbue them with meaning.’[1] The report notes that ‘In this blueprint, we’ve outlined the main steps today’s organizations need to take to fully capture the opportunities hybrid working offers’. If we imbue the data with meaning and we are only looking for opportunities, then how will we see the possible down-sides, risks and consequences (positive and negative)  of it?’  

Maven7-OrgMapper offers Organizational Network Analysis (ONA). They  sent me a ‘primer’ on ONA and the features of Org Mapper. Incidentally, their  email gave me a new word ‘videomonials’ which was fun.   The primer is a useful intro to the topic – ‘It enables leaders to look beyond the traditional hierarchies of their organization and drive enhanced collaboration through in-depth analysis of the organization’s formal and informal networks.’

 Much work is going on around ONA, see for example, Rob Cross’s extensive work on it.  My view is that ONA will be of growing benefit in organisation design work, but along with the strengths of looking at organisation through networks of influence, it also has caveats around data interpretation, see a 2010 research paper on this Analyzing the Flow of Knowledge with Sociometric Badges which though old highlights the concerns which are still pressing. 

What have you reviewed and reflected on this week? Let me know.   

  [1] Silver, N., The Signal and the Noise: The Art and Science of Prediction, Penguin, 2013

Image: Simon Hennessey

Cultural influencers: how to shift and sustain organisational culture

Graffiti – crime or culture?

The research team at non-profit APQC is conducting a study on how organizations shift and sustain organisational culture. As part of their research, they are conducting interviews ‘with a range of individuals who have expertise and experience related to organisational culture.’ They invited me to participate and I talked with Elissa Tucker of APQC, last week. 

She had a set of interview questions to go through with me, as she said, ‘in order to gain your insights on this topic’.   For the most part, I enjoy these types of interviews. Once I came across a phrase ‘When I hear what I say, I’ll know what I think’, which seems to hold true for me.  The act of formulating a point of view in a way that transmits seems to clarify my thoughts.  Here are the questions with aspects of my answers and further resources.   

  1. How do you define organisational culture?   There’s no simple answer to this question.  There are multiple definitions of organisational culture ranging from ‘the way we do things round here’ to elaborate paragraphs that include behaviours, values, assumptions, norms and expectations.   I’m of the view that there is no singular organisational culture. An organisation is similar to a climate zone in that, within a recognisable range/geography, it encompasses multiple weather patterns that vary from location to location and day to day.  Organisations comprise multiple cultures, within recognisable parameters.
  2. Who defines an organisation’s ideal/desired culture?  Sometimes a strong CEO can set the tone of the culture.  Think about the ex CEO of Uber, Travis Kalanick, for example. He resigned, having been held accountable for a culture of harassment.  But even if the CEO does set the tone, that does not mean that everyone subscribes to it.  There are many other influencers that act to define organisational cultures – national cultures, professional cultures and networks of interest cultures are some of them.
  3. Why is culture important? Cultures shape, reflect and represent prevailing expectations, norms and behaviours, and, in turn, are shaped by systems, processes, rules, policies and structures. Their importance lies in the way they enable, or disable a healthy organisational life to play out.
  4. Do you see increasing awareness of the role culture plays? Yes, in relation to discussions going on now about the Covid-19 world.  Particularly in relation to maintaining or developing a sense of affiliation and ‘belonging’ to an organisation when a proportion of the workforce is now working remotely without the day-to-day and face-to-face interactions with colleagues.  There’s also a growing awareness that over-focus on hybrid working could cause cultural fractures in cases where some organisational members can work remotely and others cannot by virtue of the roles they have.  Additionally, I’ve seen a recent rise in the number of references to ‘toxic cultures’. (See my blog on this).
  5. Do you have any advice on making sceptics see the value of investing in culture? Everyone is investing or disinvesting in culture all the time, we are each engaged by, and enmeshed in, our cultures – we can’t escape them.  By deciding to, for example, ‘follow the rules’ you are maintaining your investment in that cultural norm.  Or if you decide to buck the rules you are culturally disinvesting.  Often the investment or disinvestment is not recognised as such, but it is still powerful.  There’ve been some examples of disinvestment in cases involving What’s App usage when cultural values of inclusion and respect have been challenged by exclusive and disrespectful What’s App exchanges. 
  6. What do you see as the key levers that shape organisational culture?  Johnson and Schole’s cultural web is a useful tool to start considering the levers of organisational cultures.  Too often culture is seen simply as beliefs, or behaviours, or values, but these are shaped by control, power, and organisational systems which are themselves part of the culture.  Suppose you consider the culture of responsibly driving a car on a road.  Your driving ‘culture’ is shaped by road signage, enforceable speed restrictions, road layout, etc.  The driving cultures vary by country depending on the systems which shape driver behaviour and also on the way certain driving apps are configured.  Cultures are shaped in many different ways – I hesitate to say there are ‘key levers’ – cultures are continuously emergent, shaping and being shaped by their context.
  7. Which individuals or groups are “key influencers” of organisational culture?  Finding the  key influencers of organisational culture is a task that can be aided by social network analysis.  I4CP recently published a report (unfortunately behind a paywall) on Five Ways Networks Create Culture – it concludes,  ‘Senior leaders who want to enact culture change must be prepared to learn about the many cultural undercurrents in their organisations. They need a clear understanding of their cultural subnetworks, a willingness to identify and engage with informal influencers, a sense of the absorption rate of new priorities and behaviors, an ability to defuse pockets of tension, and a profound awareness of emotional responses.’

Alongside the internal cultural influencers there are external cultural influencers – think of rise of  ‘influencers’ on Instagram, for example, or the role of activist investors.

8. What is the role of organisational subcultures? Do they need to be managed?  I am not sure that cultures and sub-cultures can be managed.  They are not ‘things’ amenable to ‘management’.  They are more like rivers that can be harnessed and shaped but the ramifications and consequences of doing this are unpredictable

9. People often talk about “changing the culture” but don’t know where to start. What would you tell them?  Again,  the Johnson and Scholes web could help.  For example – listen to the stories about the organisation, try telling different stories. Look at the power structures and see if any are restricting cultural movement and so on.  Look at the symbols – change them.  I once worked in an organisation that had in the reception area photos of the 12 (white, male) members of the executive team.  Part of the organisational rhetoric was about everyone being valued.  Believing in the power of symbols, I suggested that if this was the case, we take down the pictures of the 12 executive team members and replace it with a photomontage of the entire workforce.  My suggestion was not accepted, but consider the impact of different visual symbols as reflectors of culture in practice rather than culture in rhetoric. 

10. How do you think the pandemic and social distancing are affecting organisational culture? Both positively and negatively.  I like the way Zoom puts everyone in the same size rectangle and shuffles the order so that hierarchies get blurred. Or you get insights into colleagues lives through their children wandering into screen view.  But there are also new pressures or work-life balance, mental health, and things around a sense of belonging, as I mentioned earlier.

11. What are your biggest lessons learned from your culture work? That it is an endlessly fascinating exploration with no easy answers, only more questions. 

12. Some organisations are adopting roles dedicated to organisational culture – for example a chief culture officer. Do you think having a role or team specifically focused on culture is beneficial for organisations?  It depends on the organisation, what the purpose of the role is, and how the role-holder shapes the role. 

How would you answer these questions?  Let me know.

Image:  graffiti – crime or culture?