Designing with systems: design is attitude

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To do so, we need to 

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

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


John Zachman: The Issue is the Enterprise

Helmut Schmid: Gestaltung ist Haltung

Len Fehskens: Designing Ambitious Endeavours 

Naomi Stanford on metaphors

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

Enterprise Design Patterns

Organisation design systems models

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Introducing organisation design – part 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Introducing organisation design – part 1

introducing organisation design

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image: Principles for organisational design

Fresh start

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All the best to you and a Happy New Year.

Organisation design and the five crises

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘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