Organisations are political systems

Participants on the last couple of organisation design programmes I’ve facilitated have asked questions about managing the politics of design work, specifically the various types of power plays inherent in it.

I touch on this in my book, saying: ‘Organizations are political systems and the political arena can be murky. …  Navigating the organizational politics and the political dynamics often means that OD practitioners face compromises, tensions or ethical dilemmas that force them to ask themselves whose interests they are being asked to serve, and managing the consequences of their answers.’

In a blog I wrote,  ‘Do organisation designers need political skills?‘ I note that ‘in order to navigate the political arenas … practitioners need finely honed political skill, defined as the ability to effectively understand others at work, and to use such knowledge to influence others to act in ways that enhance one’s personal and/or organizational objectives.  Politically skilled people ‘combine social astuteness with the capacity to adjust their behaviour to different and changing situational demands in a manner that appears to be sincere, inspires support and trust, and effectively influences and controls the responses of others’ (Ferris et al. 2007).’

I wonder now if organisation designers do pay enough attention to organisational politics and honing their skills to work with/handle the politics.  As I’ve been pondering the participants’ questions and wondering how to respond in a way that is helpful to them (and me), I remembered Gareth Morgan’s metaphor and discussion on Organizations as systems of political activity.

He makes the point that ‘politics occurs on an ongoing basis, often in a way that is invisible to all but those directly involved’.   He describes politics as the way people handle ‘relations between interests, conflicts and power’.

Most of the participants on my organisation design programmes work in large bureaucratic, hierarchical private and public sector organisations.  From Morgan, we learn that ‘when we talk about organisations as bureaucracies … we are characterizing the organization in a particular style of political rule.’  Bureaucracy being ‘rule exercised through use of the written word, which provides the basis for a rational-legal type of authority or ‘rule of law’.

As I was mulling over the ideologies and politics of bureaucracies an update came my way leading me to Gary Hamel’s talk on Busting Bureaucracy at the 2018 Drucker Forum.  He quotes a survey finding: ‘76% of respondents said political behaviors highly influence who gets ahead?’ (For more on this see What we learned about bureaucracy from 7000 HBR readers).  He tells us ‘bureausclerosis – an excess of bureaucracy—too many layers and too many pointless rules—robs OECD economies of $9 trillion per year in lost economic output. The indirect costs of bu­reau­cracy—friction conformity, insularity, rigidity, apathy, politicking are likely to be even higher.’

Hamel has long been advocating against bureaucracies – still the dominant form organization structure/org chart.   In a 2014 HBR article, Bureaucracy Must Die, he says ‘It is the unchallenged tenets of bureaucracy that disable our organizations—that make them inertial, incremental and uninspiring.  To find a cure, we will have to reinvent the architecture and ideology’.

On architecture he argues: ‘A formal [bureaucratic] hierarchy overweights experience and underweights new thinking, and in doing so perpetuates the past. It misallocates power, since promotions often go to the most politically astute rather than to the most prescient or productive.

On ideology he asks ‘So what’s the ideology of bureaucrats?’ And he answers ‘Controlism. Open any thesaurus and you’ll find that the primary synonym for the word “manage,” when used as verb, is “control.” “To manage” is “to control.’

He then makes the point that to find a cure ‘To find a cure, [for the problems associated with bureaucracies] we will have to reinvent the architecture and ideology of modern management — two topics that aren’t often discussed in boardrooms or business schools.’

I think he’s right on this.  I’ve rarely participated in or brokered an organisation design discussion that openly asks what political ideology we are designing our organisation’s architecture to/with, how we feel about the way we design power in the organisaton, or what alternatives to both we could consider.

If we do not challenge/discuss the dominant organisational ideologies and architecture are we simply colluding with those in organisational power positions?   Is organisation design inherently a political activity? Sharon Varney in a blog Organisation Design without Drama implies it is saying ‘One of the problems surrounding organisation design is a reluctance to call it what it is. Sure, there are lots of sensitivities around organisation design work. But reaching for politically acceptable euphemisms doesn’t help.’

The report she co-authored The Palace: Perpectives on Organisation Design suggests that a stakeholder analysis should identify the political structures in the organisation and how the exercise of power might stymie a re-design’ and discusses (section 8.1) the bureaucracy/adhocracy swing, quoting from Margaret Wheatley ‘In our desire to control our organizations, we have  detached ourselves from the forces that create order in the universe. All these years we have confused control with order. So what if we reframed the search?’

If bureaucracies are about the politics of power and control, should we go along with the ideas that we should be ‘busting them’?  How would we start a conversation on this with the very people in/with power who seek either to control or to maintain control, and who, for the most part, are the ones who commission organisation designs and redesigns?

As Hamel asks ‘When a Global 500 chief like A.G. Lafley, twice CEO at Procter and Gamble, says, “The CEO can see opportunities others can’t,” who’s going to say “rubbish?” Or when the former managing partner of a prestigious consulting firm declares that it’s up to a handful of top executives to “shape the destiny of the business … while others have their heads buried in operations…,” who’s going to say, “no, you have it backwards; it’s the people on the edge who are best posi­tioned to see the future coming?”’

As he says ‘Unless we are willing to be .. honest and forthright, we’re part of the problem, not the solu­tion.  But before challenging others, we need to challenge ourselves. In what ways are we still paying allegiance to the bureaucratic confederacy?’

As we design and re-design organisations whose ideologies and architectures are we in thrall to and how can we challenge it and ourselves on this? Do we need to develop better political skills?    Let me know.

Image: Bio-inspired political systems


Bridging the gap between strategy design and delivery

Last week I completed a Coursera programme getting a cheerful email saying, ‘Congratulations – we mean it! Take a moment to reflect on your hard work and enjoy your completion of Bridging the Gap between Strategy Design and Delivery. You’ve earned it.’

I can’t remember now how I came across the course, offered through the Brightline Initiative a ‘non-commercial coalition of leading global organizations dedicated to helping executives bridge the expensive and unproductive gap between strategy design and delivery’ and Coursera.

I wasn’t looking for a programme but it must have been mentioned in something I read and it piqued my interest on a few counts, and then I let myself register by mentally leaping the gap between time I think I have to spend things on and time I actually have to spend things on.

My rationale was three-fold: first, that I’m in the middle of writing some online organisation design course materials and wanted to compare the Coursera approach to the FutureLearn one.  This was my first Coursera experience but I’ve taken several FutureLearns.

Second, I’ve noticed that there often seems to be a gap between purposefully designing something and then putting it into action.   Coursera quotes some statistics on the strategies designed but not realised.   They don’t mention the opposite gap of doing something without having any clear purpose or strategy for doing it, for which I’ve discovered a brilliant word – coddiwompling. This means proceeding purposefully in an unclear direction.  It’s become a favourite word with colleagues.

Third, the notion of ‘designing strategy’ was also something I wanted to explore as I’ve been reading that people are not good at designing strategies and better strategies are designed as a continuous process  of strategising rather than an annual or periodic design event.

I set off on this 5-week journey armed with my usual kit of scepticism, curiosity and lack of time. I wasn’t coddiwompling as my purpose was clear – complete the course.  My delivery strategy – do a bit each day.

Course design and delivery:  I though the course is well designed and engagingly delivered with a mix of readings, video interviews, and case studies, all downloadable for future use.  (The videos are not but their transcript is and many of the videos are available even if you’re not a course member.)   Learner interaction is fostered via, polls, ‘test your knowledge’ quizzes, encouragement to join the discussions, and green ticks + progression charts.  I found it easy to keep going.

The course ‘text’ – a chunky compilation of 25 HBR articles on aspects of strategy and strategy execution – will be a good reference source.

I liked that I could work through it on my phone making following the course easier to fit into my schedule.  The feature saying ‘this element works better on a computer’ explained why some things couldn’t be done so easily on a phone.

On the downside, I couldn’t find out how to engage with the course leaders.   I tested out the Contact Us function – with an admin point I couldn’t find in the FAQs so went to the chat.  My first question there was ‘are you a chatbot or a human being’.  I got the answer from Joseph that he was human.  (Would a chatbot say the same in answer to that question?) I also got the answer to my real questions – how long to I have access to the course for after completion? (Indefinitely) and why isn’t the course showing up in ‘my completed courses on my account?’ (Technical glitch that engineers are aware of and working on).

Gap between purposefully designing something and then putting it into action:  We learned in week one that the gap between strategy design and delivery is alarmingly common: ‘When asked what percentage of their organizational strategic objectives over the previous three years was not being met because of flawed or incomplete strategy implementation, 90% of the executives responded that their organization had failed to meet all of their strategic objectives. And this is because they don’t implement well.’  (The sceptic in me wants to know if the survey that yielded this information has been validated and is reliable, but as I said, I couldn’t find a way to interact with the educators).

The course content is designed around 10 Guiding Principles that ‘We have crafted … to help leaders shrink the costly and wasteful gap between strategy design and delivery.’  The authors make some bold claims about the Principles: ‘They safely guide leaders and teams toward the right decisions, practices, and processes. They enable organizations to counter threats and seize opportunities.’  For them the Principles are ‘both a moral rule and a basic truth. Practices can change, business models are disrupted, technology evolves, but principles do not change’.

Hmm – I’m not sure that the statement ‘Promote team engagement and effective cross-business cooperation’ (Principle 6) is a moral rule, but it is something we talk about a lot at work.  In fact, all of the ten principles seem like basic good management to me. What manager is not constantly trying to ‘Dedicate and mobilize the right resources’ (Principle 3) – in order to counter the threat of not meeting his/her objectives?  Again, I wouldn’t put it in the ‘basic truth’ bucket, more the ‘common sense’ one.  However, collectively the 10 are a good enough reminder to any manager (or strategy developer/designer) that once they’ve designed something, they should then deliver it, and the case studies (including Amazon, Netflix, Spotify, ING, BCG, Emirates) would be useful in design/delivery workshops.

Designing strategy:  The thread running through the strategy design discussions is that it’s a process not a product and that delivery is part of the process.  Listen, for example to Tendayi Viki, Benneli Jacobs and Company who, talking about Principle 9 ‘Fail fast to learn fast’, argues ‘managers and leaders should be thinking about strategy as a process of sensing and responding to the market. So, we shouldn’t view strategy as a single process where we come up with our strategy and then we just implement it regardless of what’s going on around us. …  It’s really important to view strategy as … a vision or a set of hypotheses. And then when we make decisions, and make investment decisions, we view those investment decisions as experiments to test our strategic hypotheses. And every now and again, maybe every quarter, as leaders, we get back together and review whether our strategy is actually still working and whether our strategy is actually adaptive to the world that it’s operating in.’

In a similar vein, Roger Martin, of the Rotman School of Management tells us that ‘the vast majority of strategy in the business world now is not useful. Yet we let it off the hook and say, the big problem is strategy execution. We just didn’t execute that strategy.  No, that was a dumb strategy– vacuous.’  He approaches strategy though getting answers to 5 questions that cover both design and delivery as a single process.

The key message I got from the programme was that strategy design and delivery is/should be a single and continuous process.  I think that lesson could be learned in less than five weeks.  But overall I enjoyed the programme and got some value from it.

Inevitably, having completed the course I was asked to take a survey on my experiences and asked if I would recommend it.  Has what I’ve said about it piqued your interest?  Let me know.

Image: 10 Guiding Principles


For nearly 3 years I worked for an organisation called SiloSmashers.  SiloSmashers’ mission is to ‘set out to change how government agencies and corporations manage programs — and smash silo operations’.  Their view is that ‘Working in silos creates isolation and obstacles to effective communication and collaboration across agencies and corporations — reducing efficiency and hampering progress.’

When I was doing a clear out last month – 9 days of clearing 27 items, apparently a feng shui activity that will change one’s life – I found my SiloSmashers’ business card and some of the materials I developed and used there.

Coincidentally, last week, someone asked me if there would be any mileage in running a training programme on silo smashing. Whether silo smashing has returned to change my life, I don’t know but I decided to ask myself if a silo smashing programme would attract participants.

Silo smashing is recommended to bust the downsides of the ‘silo mentality’ – defined as the ‘mind-set present in some companies when certain departments or sectors do not wish to share information with others in the same company.’  That implies a wilfulness about the issue of cross silo collaboration, which I don’t think is necessarily the case.

Silos get built through things like the traditional bureaucratic vertical hierarchies (look at any traditional organisation chart and you’ll see a  visual of silos), the performance management systems that encourage competition over collaboration, the reward systems that reward individuals over teams, cultures that emphasise command and control rather than self-direction and autonomy,  IT systems that ‘don’t talk to each other’ and physical layouts (like a single business unit on one floor).  You can probably name other organisational elements that encourage silo working.  It’s not necessarily a ‘mindset’ of wilful behaviour of the people in the silos (although in some cases it might be).

Although there’s much written on breaking down silos e.g. To Build Your Business Smash Your Silos, or 5 Ways to Destroy the Pesky Silos in Your Organization, or Breaking Down Silos to Achieve Strategic Agility or Gillian Tett’s book The Silo Effect: The Peril of Expertise and the Promise of Breaking Down Barriers (see her talking on the topic here)  silos are not necessarily a bad thing.

As the authors of Dealing with Market Disruption: Seven Strategies for Breaking Down Silos remark, ‘Conventional wisdom holds that silos are a flawed business construct: a legacy of command and control leadership symbolizing outmoded and inefficient management. In truth, silos help establish boundaries and maintain order — and allow professional teams to operate in a focused, specialized way.

If we talk the language of agile squads, tribes, guilds, chapters, we are not far from the concept of silos.  How different is a ‘tribal mentality’ from a ‘silo mentality’?

Commenting in a Tweet, @mrcruce, July 31, 2018, says ‘Instead of ‘eliminating’ divisions, or ‘blowing up’ silos…. let’s use metaphors about bridging, connecting, unifying, transcending, collaborating across borders…. connecting all of the groups within an organization in a coherent way so that they all work seamlessly together.’

This is a sensible approach that could blend the virtues of silos (and tribes) with the virtues of connectivity and collaboration and it is possibly a more achievable, and less disruptive method, than opting to smash the silos.  In ‘Don’t Break Your Silos – Push Out the Silo Mentality’ the writer’s view is that silos need ‘ventilating’.  He points out that, ‘Grain silos keep different types of agriculture separate, but they do not keep them in a vacuum, instead there are openings, which allow air to get in.  Ventilating the silos is not a simple task and the main difference between breaking and ventilating them is that the focus does not disperse. In order to ventilate the silos in your company, you need to boost the sharing culture within and build bridges between the different silos, by which the information can cross freely from one to another.’

Connecting silos where and when appropriate, using carefully re-designed organizational systems and processes to manage the connections effectively in ways that develop a culture of connection and collaboration is the topic of several blogs (and books – See Patrick Lencioni, Silos, Politics and Turf Wars).  One writer summarises the many who advise on how to do this:

  • Develop a unified vision and providing people with a clear purpose and ultimate common goals.
  • Boost the sharing culture and encourage environments of necessary transparency
  • Build bridges between the different silos, through which the information can flow freely. ‘Whether it’s going to be by creating cross functional teams, holding regular meetings between departments or finding a way of your own. This is all to improve collaboration, communication, and trust between teams.’

This is all easier said than done but a good starter is the five questions from a Fast Company article:

  1. What priorities do you or your department have that are not aligned with another’s?
  2. Put yourself in the place of the other silo–what would make that silo realize that your need was a priority?
  3. What information do you or your department have that could be useful to others?
  4. What information or assistance do you need from another silo that you are not getting?
  5. In what areas would increased collaboration and giving up some autonomy be more beneficial for the organisation than maintaining your individuality?

Margaret Heffernan tells a lovely story that illustrates a forum in which the five questions above get addressed:

‘When it came time to draw up the company’s annual budget, each department head drew up a budget for that department — but then had to explain it so cogently to one colleague that the colleague could defend it at the leadership team meeting. The chief technology officer would argue the case for marketing, the head of sales spoke on behalf of operations, customer care explained technology’s needs. The impact of this simple exercise was profound. Everyone had to see the whole company through eyes not their own.’  

And a second one about an executive who ‘told me about the silos of his business: geographical regions and technical functions found it hard to connect and trust one another. He’d asked that each make short films about one another. He wasn’t expecting anyone to invest much effort in the project but went to the trouble to gather the entire company in a cinema to watch what they’d made. The outcome startled him: movies of immense passion, inventiveness and humor that delighted, motivated, and inspired the whole company.’

These stories illustrate that taking inventive steps to build social connections go a long way towards bridging silos.  But in themselves they are not sufficient. There have to be clearly communicated reasons for connecting and formal reinforcement of it with systems, processes and common platforms that track and enable connection.   (See how the Estonian government manages a platform that is common and appropriately siloed).   Additionally there has to be what Rob Cross describes as boundary spanning leadership which requires skills in systems, system dynamics and network thinking and connecting.

Given all the above info, it seems to me that we could easily develop a programme on Silos – not smashing but connecting.  What’s your view?  Let me know.

Image: Sam Bates Silo Artist

Too many projects, too much change

I may have mentioned that I’m taking a 5-week Coursera course, Bridging the Gap between Strategy Design and Delivery, developed by the Brightline Initiative. I’m going to write more about it when I’ve completed it but meanwhile one of the module topics I studied this week is particularly relevant to some work I am currently doing.

It’s about projects and change.  Perry Keenan of BCG talks about the ‘increasingly artificial split– between running the business and changing the business’.  (You can watch the four minute video here)

He talks about the issues with too many initiatives, saying ‘Arguably, it is in fact easier to add an initiative than it is to stop one because there’s a lot of connection – political, emotional, historic– a set of factors which means it’s not easy to stop initiatives. It’s often not easy even to slow them down.’  He goes on to advise, ‘If you’re going to add in new initiatives, then be very thoughtful about what it means for the initiatives that you already have in play and the demands that you’re placing on your people. Once again, we all too often, in theory, assume that there is an infinite pool of highly capable people available to deliver the strategic initiatives. It’s a finite resource. And therefore, it has to be managed in a very definitive way.’

This chimes with an article I read in the Harvard Business Review, Too Many Projects. It opens saying ‘it’s surprisingly hard for organizations to kill existing initiatives, even when they don’t align with new strategies. Instead, leaders keep layering on initiatives, which can lead to severe overload at levels below the executive team.’  The article cites six further reasons for why this change overload occurs

  1. Impact blindness:  executive teams can be oblivious to the number and cumulative impact of the initiatives they have in progress.
  2. Multiplier effects: leaders have a line of sight into their own groups’ initiatives but a limited view of other groups’ activities. Because functions and units often set their priorities and launch initiatives in isolation, they may not understand the impact on neighbouring functions and units
  3. Political logrolling: Executives tend to be strongly invested in some “signature” projects and may garner resources for them through implicit agreements to support their peers with their projects
  4. Unfunded mandates. Leaders want a project to happen but don’t have the resources to put to it. Instead just adding it to the ‘business as usual work’.
  5. Band-Aid initiatives; this is a proliferation of initiatives designed to solve a problem, but without address the root causes of the problem in the first place
  6. Cost myopia; leaders fail to estimate, or underestimate the human cost of multiple initiatives on performance, motivation, morale, stress and so on.

In case you don’t know whether your organisation has too many change projects/initiatives, there is a 17 item yes/no questionnaire – one of the questions, for example, is ‘Does the organization lack processes for quantifying impact and prioritizing initiatives? Yes/No.’   The instructions read, ‘The first step in dealing with initiative overload is to honestly assess and acknowledge the [overload] problem. Ask yourself the questions below to gauge whether your organization is at risk. Then total up the yeses—those are red flags. If you have more than four, you may need to better manage the number or timing of initiatives.’

Since most of us completing the survey scored at least 10+ it served to confirm what we already knew (or at least, felt), that we are at risk and need to better manage the number and timing of initiatives.

The difficulties lie in converting a strong feeling that we are at risk into evidence proving that we are, and then doing something about it.  Both Keenan, and the HBR authors highlight the problem and the impact of the problem, but don’t specify or hint at any practical guidance on mitigating the risks and/or stopping the overload.

One of the things we are feeling is a risk is discussed in an article The Long-Term Damage from Juggling Too Many Projects – it notes that ‘Scrambling to shift scant resources in order to meet deadlines can have a chaotic ripple effect.’  That ripple effect is not just on the timeline and delivery schedule of competing projects and ‘business as usual’ but also on the people involved.

That’s the area I’m interested in.  I’m wondering if there’s a way we can look ahead to forecast the likely project load on people and take steps to even out the flow, slowing it down, speeding it up, or moving resources in a planned way and not a reactive way.  It’s necessary as in our case many people are doing project work alongside their ‘day job’.

I want to create a ‘heat-map’ that forecasts what one writer describes as ‘change collision’:  ‘Change collisions occur when there are multiple changes hitting individuals or a team of people over a common timeframe. Often, change collisions are a small number of high impact changes. In some cases, however, these collisions may be a high volume of low impact changes that didn’t garner attention until understood in the aggregate. Keep in mind that other “rhythm of the business” activities, driven by the organization’s calendar of events, should be taken into account as well when considering the volume of change activity.’

Talking with colleagues on the issues of project overload led to a number of interesting, still open, questions:

  • What’s the tipping point between projects that remain manageable and the point of overload?  How could we recognise it?
  • Is project overload to do with leadership and communication as much as the demands of the projects themselves?
  • How do we reconcile change due to project delivery and implementation and change in ‘business as usual’?  Does one feel more overloading than the other?  Or is it the combination that causes overload?  (In our case many people are doing project work alongside their ‘day job’.)
  • Is something we call ‘too much change’ related to projects, the general operating context changing, other factors changing and is the source of the ‘too much change’ feeling identifiable (and does the source matter?)

We are interested in the human indicators of overload and began to develop a list of metrics that we could track and link back to the project plans.

People suggested a range of other measures that fell into four impact categories: resilience, successful delivery outcomes, work/culture and resource.  For example, in the successful delivery category,  if we the rise of reports in bullying and harassment coincides with some project delivery target(s) is there any connection to investigate?  Or on in the resource category,  if we saw a sudden spike in people working weekends and logging overtime is there too little resource on the project?

Right now, we are playing around with the ideas of how to measure this cumulative impact of projects and associated change with a view to gathering data to test some of our ideas and convert them into an evidence based heatmap.

How do you measure the cumulative impact of change on your workforce members, and how to you use it to smooth the change flow?  Let me know.

Image:  Overloaded

What I talk about when I talk about structure

In many of the organisation design meetings that I attend where a client has an issue they want to address, their request is for a re-structure.  Closer questioning reveals that by ‘re-structure’ they actually mean they want a differently arranged traditional organisation chart.  They are of the view that, once people are in the configuration shown on the chart, a revised chart will solve the issue and are surprised when I ask questions about work flows, value streams, customer journeys and so on.  There is almost no recognition that ‘structure’ and ‘re-structure’ mean more than a different organisation chart.

Asking people what information an organisation chart gives us, and what information it doesn’t give us alerts them to the possibility that the information it doesn’t give us could well be useful in thinking how to achieve the re-structure purpose (assuming we are clear on  what that is) but that recognition doesn’t translate into ‘let’s look at that too’.  Providing the article ’10 principles for organisation design’,  where principle 3 is ‘Fix the structure last, not first’,  is given polite nods before people return to drawing boxes and lines.

What I talk about when I talk about structures is not organisation charts.   I am not against org charts (see my 2011 blog) and they are usually one of the outputs of design work. But organisation design charts do not represent the totality of organisational ‘structure’.

The Cambridge Dictionary defines structure as:  the way in which the parts of a system or object are arranged or organized, or a system arranged in this way, giving some examples:

  • the grammatical structure of a sentence
  • The structure of this protein is particularly complex.
  • They have a very old-fashioned management
  • Some people like the sense of structure that a military lifestyle imposes

You can see from the examples that ‘structure’ comes in many forms.  Over the years my views on what I mean by structure has developed.  My 2012 blog on the topic almost does equate ‘structure’ with ‘chart’ (but not with ‘design’).

But now,  I think of structure is a way that is much more akin to Richard Karash’s view.  In his blog  ‘How to see structure’ he discusses structure in the way I now think of it.   He says, ‘Structure is the network of relationships that creates behavior. 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 … 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.’

Karash explains the traffic accident at three levels:  the events level, the patterns and trends level, and the structural level.  As he points out, these levels are interdependent.  The structural elements – road layouts, traffic flow regulators, road surface design and so on interact along with non-structural elements to shape driver behaviour.   (I don’t agree that structure ‘creates’ behaviour, but I do think it shapes and directs it).

The various elements of  ‘structure’ that comprise the structural building blocks of ‘design’ include:

  • Hierarchies, layers and spans, with stated decision and authority levels
  • Lateral linkages and interdependencies
  • Work process, flows and business capabilities
  • Organisational performance management and governance systems
  • Individual performance management systems, pay and reward mechanisms, job design, career paths.
  • Templates, frameworks, models and methodologies
  • Information and communication flows
  • Policies, procedures and standards

So, when I talk about structure, I talk about those things, and these are the things I consider in the organisational design work.  This more comprehensive view of ‘structure’ is sometimes problematic if I don’t explain and explore it carefully with clients and stakeholders, because typically they do equate – and use interchangeably – ‘structure’ and ‘chart’ and also refer to the chart as the organisation’s ‘design’.    (The ’10 Principles for Organisation Design, mentioned earlier, also equates structure with chart, but not design).

Maybe I’m out on a limb taking a more comprehensive view because when I Googled ‘organisation structure’ and looked at the images from this they were pretty much all of organisation charts.   But I’m simultaneously reading blogs and articles telling us that the organisation chart is dead.   See for example The Org Chart is Dead,  and The End of the Org Chart and To Sir, With Love – Compliance and the End of the Org Chart and It’s Time to Kill the Org Chart

There are many organisations, particularly those moving towards ‘structures that enable self-organizing teams to organize and collaborate through internal networks’, that do not have an organisation chart of the type shown when you Google organisation charts/structures – but they do have many of the other structural elements on my list above.

Corporate Rebels reports that these chartless organisations ‘have evolved themselves from structures that look like static slow-moving pyramids to something that looks more like a flexible and fast-moving swarm of start-ups. We have witnessed them in all kinds of shapes and sizes, all called slightly different. Spotify talks about squads and tribes. Buurtzorg about self-governing teams. Stanley McCrystal about a team of teams. Finext and Incentro about cells. And FAVI calls them mini-factories.’  Look too at the article on Haier in November/December 2018 HBR

If we only equate ‘structure’ with traditional types of ‘org chart’ we lose sight of the many other, possibly better, ways of organising work and workers.   No organisation chart does not mean no structures.   And having an organisation chart requires acknowledgement that it represents only one structural element and one that neither defines nor represents the design of the organisation.

What do you talk about when you talk about structures?  Let me know.


(I got the title from a book by Haruki Murakami ‘What I talk about when I talk about running’)

Image: New York and Erie Railroad organisation chart from 1855 © Geography & Maps/Library of Congress

Chapter sampling

So far this year I’ve downloaded sample chapters of 20 non-fiction books to my Kindle.  In 2017 I downloaded 34.  I don’t think I’ll be downloading another 14 this year, but probably I’ll download 2 or 3 more.

I download chapters of books that either I’ve read a review of that I think sounds interesting and relevant to the work that I’m doing, or that people have recommended – in response to something I’ve said I’m working on.  So, reviewing the chapter list I can review my year at work.  It’s a variant of a personal diary, except I’ve done the reading not the writing.

At least, in theory, I’ve done the reading.  In practice I have not read all the sample chapters all the way through, and I don’t know if Amazon is keeping track of the sample chapters that I convert to buying the whole book – probably they are, so I’m expecting a nudge on the lines of  ‘People like you download 25 sample chapters per year and then buy the full book of 20 of them.’

Amazon may not have the AI (yet) to report that my starting to read a sample chapter invariably invokes my personal a ‘fail fast’ system, and may be running their sample chapter operation on the premise that I will read the sample and buy the book.  But I don’t.  If I want to read it, I borrow it from the library.  (Libraries are a very necessary part of community life and are under increasing threat.  I’m a confirmed library user and delighted to see how the campaign is growing to save the UK’s libraries from closure).

I wonder what nudges, reprimands or penalties Amazon will invoke when they get the pattern. What proportion of readers really are like me and don’t buy the book?   Will Amazon to redesign my process or make me see it from a different perspective because I stop their purchasing a few pages in?  I see Amazon’s Alexa now has Hunches, will she/he sense my preference for library borrowing and urge me to buy the book instead or will Alexa be biased in favour of libraries?

Enough on Alexa and Amazon. The books I haven’t bought during 2018 are a mixed bunch:

  1. Happiness Quantified: A Satisfaction Calculus Approach, Bernard van Praag and Ada Ferrer-i-Carbonell.
  2. The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology that Fuel Success and Performance at Work, Shawn Achor
  3. Dynamic Capabilities and Strategic Management: Organizing For Innovation And Growth, David Teece
  4. The Big Leap: Conquer Your Hidden Fear and Take Life to the Next Level, Gay Hendricks
  5. The Tyranny of Metrics, Jerry Z Muller
  6. Agile IT Organization Design: For Digital Transformation and Continuous Delivery,  Sriram Narayan
  7. Emotions, Learning, and the Brain: Exploring the Educational Implications of Affective Neuroscience,  Mary Helen Immordino-yang
  8. Deviate: the science of seeing differently, Beau Lotto
  9. Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, Angela Duckworth,
  10. Small Arcs of Larger Circles: framing through other patterns, Nora Bateson
  11. Simple Complexity: a clear guide to complexity thinking, Neil Johnson
  12. Notes on a nervous planet, Matt Haig
  13. GDP: a brief but affectionate history, Diane Coyle
  14. Twitter and Tear Gas: the power and fragility of networked protest,  Zeynep Tufekci
  15. Networks of Outrage and Hope: social movements in the internet age, Manuel Castells
  16. Doughnut Economics: seven ways to think like a 21st century economist, Kate Raworth,
  17. Miniature Guide to Critical Thinking, Concepts, and Tools,  Richard Paul
  18. Metaphors in Mind: transformations through symbolic modelling,  James Lawley
  19. Moral Courage, Rushworth Kidder
  20. Bullshit jobs, David Graeber

Applying my human sense-making to the list and attempting to see a pattern in it, reveals that through the year I was looking at four categories:  employee experience (1, 2, 20), designing systems (3, 6, 10, 11, 18), operational context (5, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16)  and brain stuff (7, 8, 4, 9, 17, 19).

The list reflects the way I work with organisation design.  I do think it’s about designing structures, roles, processes and systems that yield a positive employee experience.  In doing that we have to be alert to the constantly changing environment (internal and external) and take thoughtful, often courageous action.

In each of the categories I find that, even if I have not either bought or borrowed the book, I have taken info from the sample chapter and used it in my work – an example from each category:

Employee Experience CategoryBullshit Jobs,  which discusses the ‘possibility that our society is riddled with useless jobs that no one wants to talk about’, because as he observes, ‘Everyone is familiar with those sort of jobs that don’t seem to the outsider, to really do much of anything’.  It did good service in alerting me to be more rigorous and critical in my work on job design.

Designing systems categorySimple Complexity – The writing style of the author irritated me so I looked for other sources of info and was recommended David Snowden’s 3-minute video How to Organise a Children’s Party which explains simply and brilliantly.  I’ve now shown the video many times in workshops.

Operational context categoryThe Tyranny of Metrics – not only did I borrow the book, from the library, and read it all, I also wrote a blog on it

Brain stuff categoryMiniature Guide to Critical Thinking, Concepts, and Tools – I wrote a blog on this too and I’m also now using the tools, frameworks, and info available on the Critical Thinking Foundation website – so well worth the download.

Have you read all or part of any of the books I downloaded sample chapters of?  If so, what did you learn from them?  Let me know.

Image:  Kindle logo

Ten questions

Most Tuesdays, work permitting, I take a writing class at my local adult education centre.  The first part of the class is a 20 minute or so writing assignment.   Although I didn’t make the class last Tuesday (work commitment) Paul, the tutor, sent me the task.

Based on The Guardian’s Q & A in which ‘Public figures supply the answers to our searching questions’, Paul sent a list of 18 questions with the instruction: ‘Answer 10 of the questions with single sentences and then pick one to write on it for 10 mins.’

Thinking about the assignment, I realised that each week, at the end of my blog, I ask a question.  So, rather than using Paul’s list, I decided I would take 18 of my questions and, as instructed, answer 10 of them with a single sentence, then pick one of them – one of the 10, I think, but he’s not here to clarify that – to write about for 10 minutes.  Paul is very strict on timekeeping and we all obediently stop writing when he calls time, so I’ll do the same.  (Normally I spend at least twice as much time looking at interesting links as I do writing.)

I decided to take the first eighteen weeks of 2018 – which took me to Mid-May – and use those questions.  (If you want to look at the related blog, go to my website and filter by month/year).   I’ll answer 10 of them with one sentence.  Here goes – I’ve listed the 18 and put my chosen ten in bold, with my answers in italics:

  1. What organization design knowledge do you think is provisional?  I’m not sure we have organisation design ‘knowledge’ only theories, practices, assumptions, and methods.
  2. What’s your view on gratitude as a business capability?
  3. What masterclasses would you offer organization designers?
  4. Do you think science fiction can inform organization design?(There’s another sci-fi question a couples of weeks later so I’ve omitted the second one).  Yes, definitely and it should as it offers the prospect of states beyond those we typically imagine in an organisational setting.
  5. What’s your view on the HR BP role?
  6. What’s your view on hostile design?I think there’s an unfortunate tendency for organisation designers to be ‘servants of power’ rather than ‘owners of power’ which in many cases does result in hostile design.
  7. Do you think employees need to share organizational values?No, I did think that at one time, but I have changed my views on organisational values which often times are not adhered to even by those who promulgated them in the first instance.
  8. What toolkits are in your [OD] toolkit?
  9. What are you making sense of this week? I’m trying to work out how we can measure the additive impact, if any, of planned change on people’s normal day to day workload.
  10. How would you assess the degree of complexity in a business function and what is manageable for one Director?
  11. What do you think you can expect as you move from an internal to an external OD & D consulting role? (Or vice versa) A very different power dynamic – an internal consultant, regardless of expertise, can only influence while an external consultant – also regardless of expertise – is viewed as authoritative and worth paying attention to.
  12. What are your project do-ability criteria? My main criterion is to have a very good project manager working with me, because without one the whole piece of OD work could easily remain at the design stage and never make it into implementation.
  13. Do you think that the outcomes of OD & D work can be identified and then converted into useful proxy measures to show ROI? Yes, I’m sure they can and I’m still not sure quite how to do that –  it’s something that I’m still working on.
  14. What are your OD sacred cows?
  15. What’s your view of business v digital transformation?
  16. How would you, or are you, bridging the academic/practitioner organization design gap to help ensure elegant organization design?
  17. Do you think advancing technologies will impact organisation design? Yes and we are already seeing that both in the way we ‘do’ organisation design and in the way organisation designs are changing.
  18. It’s very easy to ‘unsee’.  It is less easy to stop unseeing, but I think to stop unseeing is a skill to be practiced. What’s your viewing on unseeing and stopping unseeing? Unseeing is not noticing what is happening in the context and being alert to the possibilities, challenges, opportunities, understanding that really seeing would offer – too much of organisational life is blinkered by assumptions and legacy.

Now I get 10 minutes to write on one of them and I’ll put the links in afterwards.  It’s 15.03 timer is set!   The question of hostile design is one that becomes increasingly relevant as working contracts change and technology encroaches more and more deeply into the design of organisations.   Take a look at the gig economy,  zero hours contracts, employees having microchip implants (albeit voluntarily at this stage), and human job roles being superseded by automated processes. One of our design dilemmas is how to work with the increasingly complex tech/human interface.

In the CIPD workshop I facilitated last week, I posed 4 scenarios (thank you Paul Levy for letting me use them) one of which was ‘organisation designers working in a world where they are facilitating cyborgs, developing implanted employees, meeting inside the matrix and led by robotic leaders’.  This may sound far fetched today but we see the seeds of it already e.g. in cyborgs , implanted employees, and robo work-allocators.  Tech can feel/be hostile to people – look at the twitter trolls where the tech is mediating the hostility, but this doesn’t have to be the case. How do we design organisations that manage the tech human interface in a way that values the humans?

Ok – that’s 10 minutes of pure writing.  Now I’m going to go back and put in links to some of the points in the 10 minutes worth.

If you were given this list of 18 questions which one would you choose to spend 10 minutes writing on?  Let me know.

Image Just Questions 10, Mark Fearn