Hostile organisation design

The Big Issue of 13 February 2018, has an article on hostile design.  It highlights ‘the use of architecture that excludes people or has a negative effect on public spaces.’  For example, designing park benches in such a way that people can’t lie down on them.

A couple of days later I read about the ‘ironing board’ seats on new UK trains which have ‘prompted complaints over hard seats, upright backs and low arm rests. One passenger complained of suffering from “numb bum” on the trains.’

The two examples are different, but in the same ball park, the park bench design is intentionally hostile  (see a debate on it here),  whilst the hard seats are probably thoughtlessly hostile (or designed to a cost spec which didn’t allow for more than the bare minimum).

Then I read Leandro Herrero’s daily thought on the tyranny of metrics where he quotes the blurb from Jerry Muller’s book on the topic.  I haven’t yet read the book, but I have now read a review of it, which concludes:

‘Many of us have the vague sense that metrics are leading us astray, stripping away context, devaluing subtle human judgement, and rewarding those who know how to play the system. Muller’s book crisply explains where this fashion came from, why it can be so counterproductive and why we don’t learn.’

(I’ve also ordered the book from my excellent public library).

Organisational metrics are often both intentionally and thoughtlessly hostile.  Take, for example a common call centre operatives performance metric ‘average handle time’ i.e. ‘the total average duration of a single call, including hold time, talk time and the follow-up or admin tasks related to that call.’ Its intentional hostile impact is to penalize reps who are efficient but may also take longer calls to help customers through complex problems.  Its thoughtless hostility lies in the fact that ‘it doesn’t tie back customer retention, growth or any other meaningful key performance indicator’ but people are held to it regardless.

Similar metrics rule doctors’ lives and the book Admissions, by Henry Marsh that I read earlier this year is awash with examples of what I am now beginning to think of as hostile organization design – in my definition this covers both intentional and thoughtless hostility.

Having sensitised myself to the hostile design concept, I’m now wondering how useful it is in practice.  Should organisation designers be alerted to hostile design via some equivalence of the ‘empathy suits’ that Ford vehicle engineers and designers put on to help them actually experience what it’s like to be someone aging, or pregnant, or drunk, and trying to drive a car.

The experience of ‘being’ such a user helps them (Ford engineers) design and build vehicles with special needs and limitations in mind, thus going some way to making vehicles easy and pleasant to use regardless of user.   They really do have the third age suit – similar to the MIT AGNES one – and also  the pregnancy suit, and the drugged and drunk suit.

As we design – and I’m including organisation designers, their sponsors and all the organisation’s leaders here – we could try out variations on the ‘employee empathy suit’.  Ones that spring to mind are the ‘pay differential’ suit,  as we design pay systems,  or the 9-box grid suit as we design performance management systems, or the gender bias in recruitment and talent management suit  as we design those systems.

Experiencing life through those suits would highlight what makes systems, processes, policies, and measures employee/customer friendly, and what makes them hostile.

Going back to hostile design/architecture, it is criticised for its manifestation ‘in the form of “silent agents” that take care of behaviour in public space, without the explicit presence of authorities’ or intervention of other humans.  Thus an anti-sticker sheath or anti-graffiti paint stops street voices.

Using physical design to shape behaviour is very similar to the design ‘nudges’ we are getting from various organisations as we go about our daily lives.   The average handle time mentioned earlier is an example.  Both evoke similar concerns that although design and behavioural nudging can be problematic, in some circumstances it can be useful.

Distinguishing between ‘hostility’ and ‘friendliness’ in design – whether physical or organisational design calls for reflective, ethical consideration.  One ethicist notes that ‘In fact the permissibility of a nudge derives from whether it is being used in an ethically acceptable way, something that can only be explored on an individual basis.  … nudges are justified if they maximise future liberty. Either way the nudging itself is not inherently problematic.’

This notion of differentiating between ‘hostile’ and ‘friendly’ design from an ethical perspective requires not only empathising with the users of the design but also quality collective debate and individual deliberation on the implications and consequences of the design.  These all, I think, are largely missing from organisation design discussions and it is time we brought it into our practice.

What’s your view on hostile design?  Let me know.

Image: Archisuits

Archisuit, designed by Sarah Ross, consists of an edition of four leisure jogging suits made for specific architectural structures in Los Angeles. The suits include the negative space of the structures and allow a wearer to fit into, or onto, structures designed to deny them.

Shared values or not

‘You don’t need to share values’, someone I was in a meeting with the other day, said very firmly.  I’ve been thinking about his statement.  In each of lift lobbies where I work the organisation’s values are the first thing you see when you leave the lift.  They’re painted large on the wall opposite the lift doors.  I found his statement intriguing and I’ve been asking myself some questions that it raised for me:

  • Do I share those values?
  • If so, how do I convert them into my day to day working life, so I ‘live’ them?
  • Are the values ‘liveable’ – for example, if I make what I believe to be a ‘bold decision’ (one of the values) what if others believe it is foolhardy, risky, or wrong?
  • Does it matter if I don’t share the values? If so, in what way?
  • What if I do share the values but interpret them differently from others – what are the implications?
  • How does the concept of ‘sharing values’ square with the concept of ‘valuing diversity’? Suppose someone doesn’t share the values but met all other criteria for employment, would we say that they are not right for this organisation –  in which case would we be valuing diversity – or only some aspect of it?

Maybe I’m overthinking this off-the-cuff comment, but it led me into looking more at espoused values – those that appear on walls, on corporate websites, sometimes in the employee handbook and on induction programmes.   In a paper ‘Evaluating espoused values: does articulating values pay off?’  Researchers noted that there’s often ‘cynicism and suspicion about the values that companies espouse with their written value statements. Terms like “window dressing”, “greenwashing”, and “PC” (political correctness) easily spring to mind because the link between articulated values and corporate behaviour may be tenuous’.

Nevertheless, these researchers offer several reasons why having them is worthwhile.  They found that espoused values:

  • Are important because they are positively associated with financial performance.
  • Help with ‘impression management’ and that a ‘corporation’s ability to communicate values to their current and potential stakeholders is better than not trying at all.’
  • Are increasingly contractually required in order to acquire new customers, including governments.
  • Are associated with matching people’s values with those of the organization and that ‘communicating espoused organizational values upfront paves the way for matching expectations and for relevant discussions prior to recruitment and relationships with potential partners.’
  • Can help employees (and potentially other stakeholders) focus their attention on what is considered ‘right behaviour’ and assist in their interpretation of what makes a ‘good soldier’: they know what ideal to strive for, what is conceptually expected from them, as they are a ‘solid cue for current and future staff and managers of the organization regarding what is important around here.’

They conclude their paper saying, ‘Our findings suggest that, while managers should not naively believe that corporate values will necessarily be exactly what people in the organization do, there is some advantage to espousing values actively as part of corporate communications strategies. We recommend espousing values that are, at least to some extent, different to those of other companies, and we believe that organizations are better off adopting a dynamic approach to espoused values where changes and dialogues take place.’

The ‘dynamic approach’ is interesting.  Their suggestion is that it is better to change an organisation’s espoused values over time, rather than stick with a long-term stable set.

The changing nature of espoused values in organisations is touched on in another research paper, Mapping Espoused Organisational Values.  Here researchers found that ‘A first observation is that our inventory of espoused values has similarities with previous frameworks on organisational values in general. For example, all include values that are concerned with capability, including performance, efficiency, flexibility and adaptability. … However, there are categories in our inventory that are not evident in most of the prior frameworks. In particular …  values that reside in the ‘Emphasis on Community’ … such as ‘sustainability’, ‘care for environment’, ‘social responsibility’ and ‘ethical practice’.   Similarly, values such as achievement’, ‘winning’ and ‘challenge’ do not appear in earlier inventories.

They suggest that ‘the richness of value labels that relates to broader ethical issues may be aimed at external stakeholder management, but also may have an increasing influence on organizational behaviour as they are embedded into organizational practices.’

I what ‘embedded’ means?  What I take it to mean is that the espoused values must be more than words on a wall.  They must be evident in every day use.  Achieving this could contribute to overcoming the ‘say-do’ disconnect which gives rise to the cynicism that often accompanies discussions of organisational values.  (See some research on this in:  Inspiration and Cynicism in Values Statements) How does being embedded square with being dynamic?

One way of making use of the values is in decision making.  Joel Urbany explains how to do this.  He points out that ‘a decision necessarily involves an implicit or explicit trade-off of values. Because the values that underlie our decision making are often buried in the shortcuts we take, we need a means for revealing those values and expressly thinking through the trade-offs between them.’  He outlines a process of decision mapping that ‘literally creates a picture of a decision that is built around choice options, consequences, outcomes and values/goals.’

Principle 1: Every action represents a choice

Principle 2: Every choice option has both positive and negative poles.

Principle 3: Every decision is a trade-off of values.

Principle 4: Reflections about values are more likely to “stick” if they are grounded in the reality of everyday or recognizable decisions rather than presented in the form of abstract exhortations.

Urbany continues by outlining how to use decision mapping as an everyday tool in organisational life, linking it to the values of the organisation.

This seems a practical and useful approach to both having and using organisational values, what it doesn’t mean is that someone has to ‘share’ the values – they just have to enact them.

I didn’t answer all my questions as I pondered the statement ‘You don’t need to share values’ – but I ended up agreeing with it.

Do you think employees need to share organizational values?  Let me know.

Image: Sharing values and social ontology, Marcus Hedahl & Bryce Huebner


Organization design: a toolkit of toolkits

Need a tool?  Look in the toolkit?  But which toolkit and which tool?  I’m often scrambling around looking for exactly the right tool for the piece of work that I’m engaged in.  I’ve got a very extensive toolkit myself garnered over the years.   At some point I’m going to categorise and order them so I don’t have such difficulty locating them when I’m looking.  I know I have them somewhere.  I’d like a virtual pegboard with the painted-on outline of the tool, so I can easily spot which ones are missing from their peg.

I also have a number of off-the-shelf toolkits: do-it-yourself starter kits as it were.  Here are ten of them with brief notes. Each one is free and downloadable.   I’m not specifically recommending one over the other.  Like any off-the -shelf pack they all have some useful bits and some that you may not use but come as part of the kit.   (See also my blog ‘Skateboards and Speedbumps’)

1              Virtual crash course in design thinking. This is a Stanford D-school, 90 minute  online version with video, handouts, and facilitation tips.  It goes step by step through the process of facilitating a design challenge.  I first used it with a group of 30 to redesign our organisational room booking system.  People loved the interactivity and the fact that they were able to collectively redesign the system from a user perspective in ways that we can take forward.

2              Brains, Behaviour, and Design toolkit   Someone told me about this toolkit around 5 years ago and I’ve used elements of it in many workshops. It’s billed as ‘five tools to help designers apply findings from the field of behavioral economics to their practice in order to provide a head start on framing research as well as developing new strategies for solving user problems.’ The tool I use most frequently – and have used it this week – is the one on Losses and Gains.  It’s really helpful in situations where people’s only focus is on their loss of something in a situation – for example, their own desk if we’re moving to hot-desking.  Having a discussion on what they might gain gives another perspective.

3              The Iriss toolkit has been designed to support people to consider community and societal issues particularly in health and social care.  But don’t be put off if you’re not in that sector.  It’s got a wide range of tools that are easily adaptable to other contexts.  The D-Cards (Difficulties, decisions, deliberations) tool comprises nine ‘think’ cards for planning and preparing for difficult discussions, and 13 ‘activity’ cards which present methods that can be done in a group. ‘The cards explain what the process is, it’s purpose, how to engage in this process and what we thought did and did not work when engaging in this process.’

4              IDEO Human Centered Design Toolkit You can download a free pdf of the design kit by signing up.  I downloaded mine several years ago (mine is second edition) and haven’t checked if the one currently available for download is the same as that or not.  However, mine is in three chunky sections:  hear, deliver, create, each with instructions, methods and case studies.  I’ve found the the P.O.I.N.T. technique useful.  In this you translate problems and needs identified in storytelling (one of the methods) into insights (also a method) and Themes. P = Problems, O = Obstacles, I = Insights, N = Needs,T = Themes

5              NHS Developing Together OD Toolkit – in this toolkit OD means organisational development.  It’s extensive, well-written and practical, without neglecting the theory.   It takes as a start-point that OD is “an interdisciplinary and primarily behavioural science approach that draws from fields such as organisation behaviour, management, business, psychology, sociology, anthropology, economics, education, counselling and public administration”.   This makes it a complement to the organisation design approach.  It’s well worth browsing though and I like all the additional references that it lists.

6              Frog Design Collective Action Toolkit.  This is lovely toolkit – well designed and presented.  It ‘uses an action map with activities arranged into six areas. All you need is motivation and enthusiasm to get started.’  Each of the six action areas has a number of immediately practical tools.  One group I worked with had great fun with the ‘Knowledge Hunt’ tool which asked them to ‘Find out what your team already knows about your group’s challenge— and what else you’d like to learn.’  It led to lively discussion, a lot of learning and several avenues to explore further.

7             DPSA Guide and Toolkit on Organization Design.  This is one from the Government of South Africa and is good for people looking for an organisation design phased methodology focused on structures.  It’s very detailed with 290 pages each phase described by process, tools and execution.  It’s got 76 excellent tools categorised by design phase, plus some helpful ‘Decision Points’  e.g. Decision point 1 ‘Is it a structural problem?’.

8            State Government Victoria, Organisational Design: an ideas source book.  This is another government’s guide to Org Design.  It takes a different tack from South Africa’s in that it is not as prescriptive and instructional, rather, saying ‘the publication has been developed to provide information, insights and advice that may be useful for organisational leaders working in any public organisation and thinking about adopting or abandoning any type of design’.  It’s an ‘ideas sourcebook’.  Striking (and welcome) is the statement ‘The fact is that there is an increasing number of organisational forms that cannot be simply illustrated by an organisational chart.’

9           Mind Lab Methods Cards This is a set of cards presenting Mind Lab’s ‘most used methods for policy and iterative design processes’.   The one on cultural probes is useful for gaining insight into ‘aspects of peoples’ daily lives, attitudes and values that do not emerge from traditional interviews’.  This is helpful in organisation design work when we are trying to work out the ‘say-do’ disconnects that pepper organisational life and that are part of the current design whether acknowledged or not.

10         Design Thinking Bootleg this, like the Virtual Crash Course mentioned above, is also from the Stanford D-school. It is ‘more of a cook book than a text book, and more of a constant work-in-progress than a polished and permanent piece.’ That said it is a good resource for some tools not commonly used, but that I’ve found are helpful, in organisation design work, like ‘Powers of Ten’ and ‘Why, How Laddering’.

11       Others I use which are also free and downloadable: HRBP Organization Design Toolkit ,  Good work ToolkitKelly Sears Organization Design Toolkit

What toolkits are in your toolkit?  Let me know.

Since writing the above I have found ‘The Nesta DIY Toolkit [that] has been especially designed for development practitioners to invent, adopt or adapt ideas that can deliver better results.’  And theSystems Thinking Toolkit‘ from FSG.


Image: Estate sale tools

Where could sci-fi take us?

‘The best approaches in complex situations are, well, complex. They entail the use of many different techniques, some of which we are not very good at, and some of which are quite sophisticated, novel, or nuanced.’  For those of us who think organizations are complex it holds that to attempt to design or redesign one will require the use of ‘many different techniques’.

Dave Pollard,   whose quotes these are, says, ‘what I have learned so far is that an effective approach to a complex predicament should have these [sixteen] attributes’.  He lists them:  methodical, purposeful, visionary, preventive, defensive, attentive, experiential, improvisational, collaborative, holistic, appreciative, open, bottom-up, trusting, humble and redundant, and then explains each of them.

Organization design work often involves ‘complex predicaments’.  Just skimming press reports on GE’s struggles to re-design , or the efforts by Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway and JPMorgan to improve US health care shows the nature of the challenges and opportunities facing organizations now.

However, much organization design work in established organizations, such as the four mentioned in the previous para, does not recognise complexity, and it is reactive:  a response to current or good-guess future changes in the operating context.  It is often a defensive move – to protect market share, for example – or an offensive move to disarm a competitor.  This design work does not have as the first aim changing the environmental context –  rather the design work is initiated because the context is forcing changes on the organization.

It’s possible that the conventional organsation design approaches will work in these situations:  they tend to be hinged on well-worn models – McKinsey 7 S, Galbraith’s Star, Weisbord’s six box model, or similar – and follow a sequential ‘phased’ approach that takes the organization from current state to the desired new state (with a greater or lesser degree of success).  There are many summaries and toolkits associated with this generally programmatic approach.

But compare the established organizations approach to redesign with the start-ups.  Their aim often is to change the existing operating context.  Think about those early leaders in the sharing economy like  Air B n B which changed the way we think about holiday accommodation.  At their outset they rarely go through a programmatic design process.  Their design emerges, much more in line with Pollard’s sixteen attributes, until they reach a certain size and then they may look to ‘design’ their organization or aspects of it.   Often, they turn to using a traditional approach – although it may be laced with agile or ‘design thinking’.

Suppose organization designers took a less mechanistic view of what organizations – established or start up –  ‘are’.  Suppose we stopped using the language of alignment, levers, chains of command, etc and instead believed that ‘Organizations, like complex systems in nature, are dynamic non-linear systems and the outcomes of their actions are unpredictable’ and further, believed that in these systems ‘each actor is ignorant of the behaviour of the system as a whole and responds only to the information that is available locally’.  Or used Dave Pollard’s sixteen attributes for ongoing design work.  Where would these leave the model/phase or other conventional how to approaches to design?

This question becomes material if we want to move from reactive design work to proactive design work that jumps us from path dependence into the unknown.  By proactive I mean working with questions like:

  • What is an organization? (Is it definable as an entity – where are its boundaries, interdependencies …)
  • How do we manage/design the simultaneously complex, chaotic, complicated and simple aspects of our ‘organization’
  • What in our organization is complex, what complicated, what chaotic, what simple? And why do we need to differentiate?
  • How can we conceive and work with the multiple possible futures for it/us?
  • How can we recognise when our responses to problems are locking us into patterns we find hard to escape from?
  • How do we mitigate path dependence?
  • How can we work creatively with the unknown, the partially known, and the uncertain?
  • Can we design a better future? If so, how?

NOTE:  I’ve adapted these questions from the International Futures Forum – Ready for Anything book and from the Dave Pollard piece mentioned above.

The idea of proactivity means being curious, critical and creative as we consider the future.  It means giving up the ideas of thinking we have control in order to develop skills in working courageously with multiple possibilities and not knowing and not controlling.

I’ve been wondering how to apply this notion of proactive design which was sparked by my reading a science fiction book  Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson  that I’ve written about before.  It seems to me that sci fi writers create a world of possibilities that could help us in our design work.  I started to noodle on this and came across a paper by academic Bernard Burnes and others.  The ‘paper explores how science fiction and fantasy (SFF) can be used to prepare for and shape organizational analysis. Exploring the consequences of scientific innovation is a key purpose of SFF. The speculative nature of the genre makes it a fertile metaphorical ground for testing new management concepts.’ It’s an appealing approach if we are aiming for organization longevity.

Is anyone using sci-fi or other approaches to throw off programmatic reactive design work and pick up emergent proactive design work?  Let me know.

Image: Best Sci Fi books


Organisation design masterclasses

One of the frequently asked questions I get is about organisation design training.  Where to get it, what it’s about, is it accredited and various similar things.  I’ve written about it before,  but it seems timely to add a bit more to the topic, especially as I’ve been asked to facilitate a series of organisation design masterclasses.

I paused for a moment as I typed the word ‘masterclasses’ wondering if it is a gender-neutral word or is there some equivalent that is more politically correct if it is not gender neutral?

The pause extended somewhat as read a few things on the topic of gendered language – some of it completely incomprehensible e.g. this extract from Feminist Visual Culture:  ‘It is about the language of public critique, where there is a Deleuzian libidinal economy at work which values the process of reaching different plateau in design, in contrast to the prevailing emphasis on the orgasmic end-product, or what Akis Didaskalou has called the ejaculatory mode of the design masterclass.’

I’m fairly certain that the design masterclasses I facilitate will not be in the ‘ejaculatory mode’ but …

Moving on.  We’re planning a series of seven two-hour sessions (I’m now avoiding the word ‘masterclass’ just in case) that build on the foundation of a two-day overview of organisation design of the sort many providers run.  (See the CIPD one here).   Each session is designed to take a closer look at a specific aspect design work, building more knowledge on an area that is usually only touched on in a foundational course.  Here are the topics.

1: Skills development for organisation designers

Organisation design is about understanding how people, processes, work, and culture interact within and across organisational boundaries.  Much of this interaction is mediated though technologies including social media, automated processes, and robotics.  This session looks at three skills and knowledge areas – design thinking, data analysis and interpretation, behavioural science  – that organisation designers should develop to help them design with these complex interactions in mind.  (We’ve assumed some systems theory knowledge).

2: Designing across organisational boundaries

As organisations becoming interdependent – through supply chains, contractual agreements, technology platforms – it becomes harder and harder to know where the boundaries of an organisation are.   Design work must, as Rob Cross notes, ‘be virtually continuous and requires the ongoing creation of direction, alignment, and commitment within and across organisational boundaries.’  This session explores organisational boundaries:  the technology of organisational network mapping, using data to see patterns of interactions, and identifying the business processes that cross organisational boundaries.  Being able to ‘see’ workflows in operation leads to better design and design outcomes.

3: Networks and why we need to think about them

Organisations comprise numbers of different networks of people both formal and informal.  These networks are not visible in a standard organisation chart but their health or ill-health are critical to organisational operation.  This session discusses the social networks found in organisations and proposes that organisation designers need insights into network theory as applied to social systems in order to understand and improve the organisation’s design.   Participants will learn how to apply these insights into their work.

4:  Self-managing teams their design and organisational value

Changes in social structures, access to information, technologies, and other factors are challenging traditional organisational hierarchies, based on hierarchical leader power and authority.  Self-managing teams are increasingly being seen in organisation.   This session examines what they are, how they work and the reasons for introducing (or not) self managing teams into an organisation design or redesign.

 5: Designing and redesigning culture

It is hard to know whether culture can be changed by conscious design, or whether it can only be nudged, or shaped by design work.  This session looks at the question ‘Can culture be designed?’ And, if so, what aspects of it to focus on.  Should it be the behavioural aspects – language, norms, values, and practices more commonly associated with organisation development, or should it be the business processes, systems, policies, and rules, related to the formal organisational architecture, or should it be both?   Participants will look at the various ‘levels’ of culture: organisation, business unit, and day-to- day and consider six conditions that foster the likelihood of designed culture change succeeding:

 6:  Developing credibility

External organisation design consultants are commissioned to work on design projects largely because organisational leaders feel they do not have the internal capability to deliver the work.  Thus external consultants come to an organisation already credible and perceived to have expertise.  However, internal organisation design consultants, often have to earn credibility, in order to be commissioned either to do the work, or work as equal partners with external consultants.  This session offers some techniques and insights to help develop credibility.

7: Organisation design toolkit

Any craft requires the tools of the trade, and organisation design is no different.  There are a bewildering number of models, approaches, inventories, diagnostics, ‘canvases’ and assessments.  Additionally, these are available for myriad different ‘audiences’ – leaders, executive teams, board members, managers, supervisors, front-line staff, and others.  The difficulty for a practitioner is knowing what tool to choose for the purpose in hand, and then how to apply it in order to get a successful outcome.  In this session there will be opportunity to review a number of tools, skim some useful resources, and learn how to build a personal toolkit.

What masterclasses would you offer organization designers?  Let me know.

Image: Masterclass icon

We have come a long way. We have a long way to go. In between we are somewhere

Sometimes I read in newspapers people talking about their week.  Monday – this, Tuesday – that.  Here’s one of the week in the life of a travel blogger.  And sometimes I read about the Quantified Self movement where people measure and track every aspect of their daily life.  So, this week I thought I’d try a bit of sort of thing – triggered, in part by the question I’m attempting to answer each day (new year’s resolution!) ‘What did I learn today?’   Here’s some extracts from a working week, 15- 19 January, 2018, in the life of an organization designer.


Home from work, I finished the book 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson. It’s packed with insights on how organizations, communities, and societies form, interact, die. That led me to thinking about sci-fi as a lead into org design, and I came across the article Using science fiction and fantasy to shape organizational futures which I now have and will be reading at some point this week.  I also have a list of all the music referenced in the book (a lot), and have started to play down it – I’m new to music in almost every form so that’s a learning.  As is the vast number of references he makes to philosophers, scientists, anthropologists and others – I found myself constantly reaching out to look things up.

This looking up included finding out about Reinhold Messner, a person I’ll mention in a talk I’m giving on bravery, and to whom Robinson attributed the quote ‘We have come a long way.  We have a long way to go.  In between we are somewhere.’ Which seems to me to be apt for anyone in organization design work.  I may adopt it as my motto.


We started to discuss developing a change sensitivity/heat map for the organization I am working with.  It would be on the lines of one generated by Just Giving.  We think it would be useful as there is a lot of change going on:  planned large scale change projects, smaller planned change projects, business area change – re-design, new process flow, etc., general day to day change as staff leave, join, take vacations, and so on.

Our plan is to develop an updateable visualization drawing on a range of data that could alert us to potential hotspots.  Currently we’re thinking of staff turnover, productivity drops/gains, sickness rate, project schedules, local change, additional activity that goes on e.g. mandatory training, and so on that will tell us where the volume of change may be causing stress and/or risks to business continuity. With this information we could take action.  For example, we could make changes to programme implementation scheduling, or reduce the change load.  We’re in early thinking on this.


We continued design work on the HR function.  There are numbers of interesting reports on new design for HR.  The one I found this week is HR with purpose: Future models of HR. ‘The report is based on research carried out by Professor Chris Brewster, Mark Swain and Dr Liz Houldsworth of Henley Business School, in collaboration with a number of other leading figures in the HR world.’  It’s interesting on the role of HR BP’s (see my last week’s blog) and offers lots to work on if you’re rethinking the HR function (and/or whether to have one).


I headed into a discussion on change immunity.  Is there such a thing?  I’m a bit sceptical as people are changing all the time – think new tech kit, for example –  but maybe not in the ways that ‘the organization’ would like.   However, I dug out my Kegan and Lahey book Immunity to Change: How to Overcome It and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization, one of their articles, The Real Reason People Won’t Change and some handouts I have on the topic based on their book How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work: Seven Languages for Transformation. 


This was a day of bouncing around ideas on digital transformation. It’s fascinating from a design perspective and challenges much of the traditional thinking on what an organization ‘is’ and how it operates.  It’s a whole territory for which I think we are ill-equipped in all sorts of skills, behaviours, systems, processes, policies and ethical codes.  We are not learning quickly enough to keep pace with the technology possibilities.  Read an interview with Jaron Lanier for some insights on this.   Or (back to Monday) read some of Kim Stanley Robinson’s sci-fi books and learn what we may need to learn.

Do you think science fiction can inform organization design?  Let me know.

Image: Infinity rooms

HR Business Partners or not

Which job roles will change/be created/cease to exist in 2018?  There are lots of predictions on this.  See, for example, MIT’s thoughts on five roles that will see increasing numbers of people required to fill them.   Or the BBC’s  ‘will your job be automated?’ predictor – where you enter your job title and it gives the automation likelihood.  The page is dated 2015 so I suspect the likelihood of some of the jobs listed being automated is increasing.  A more recent (March 2017) paper from PWC reports ‘Specifically, based on our own preferred, methodology, we found that around 30% of jobs in the UK are at potential high risk of automation and around 38% in the US.’   Generally, there’s as much dissension as agreement on what jobs will be automated.   Where researchers do seem to have agreement is that the work  ‘that taps into our social drives’ will not be automated. Andrew McAfee, one of MIT’s academics and IT expert, says:  I just don’t see anyone, even really great innovators, coming up with technologies that could just substitute for the people who are currently doing those very, very social jobs.

A job that I’ve been looking at over the last several weeks is the HR Business Partner role.  It doesn’t seem to be on any automation list, so it may be a social job, but, depending on whose view you are reading, it is predicted to:

Grow stronger,  but only if the role is ‘strategic’ HR partner which is currently ‘at best unquantified, at worst ill-defined and poorly understood.’

Grow weaker, as the roles ‘evolve from the initial concept of HRBPs to a new generation of HR roles that will help the function formerly known as Human Resources better contribute to the deployment of the business strategy, bring more value to the organisation, and take advantage of the possibilities offered by technological innovation.’

Change, because ‘business partners have become so embedded in the business and so distanced from central HR that they’ve taken the business’s typically much more short-term-orientated demands to heart to the extent of ignoring or overriding the overall business need for strategic change.’

Die, because ‘HR doesn’t seem to think of itself as an integral component of the business. HR people are not even trained anymore to understand the mechanics of business at work.’

This is all very confusing – particularly if you are an HR Business Partner, someone who thinks they’d like to be an HR Business Partner, an HR Leader re-designing their operating model, an employee wondering what products and services to expect from HR, a CEO deciding whether or not to ‘give HR a seat at the table’ (8 million google responses on the inquiry ‘HR seat at the table’), a consultant advising on the yes/no/maybe of HR BPs in an HR operating model.

Or perhaps it is not so much confusing as complex.  Because there isn’t a right answer.  And this is the one thing that the various writers and researcher on this topic agree on.  They all are of the view, exemplified in this comment from the CIPD that ‘there is not one model for delivering HR that is suited to all organisations.  How an organisation should structure is HR functions depends on its organisational strategy, wider organisational structure and the requirements of its customers and the organisation it is supporting.’

In considering the merits, or not, of an HR BP role, each HR leader with his/her colleagues has to work out first what’s best, or at least ‘good enough’ operating model for the combination of factors in their particular circumstances, and then whether or not HR Business Partners feature in the delivery of the operating model.

One place to start determining the right HR model for your organisation is to read through the differing perspectives presented in the UK’s CIPD paper Changing Operating Models. It’s 3 years old (February 2015) but a lot of it is still relevant and points to still to be explored aspects of HR including models for networked organisations.  And it contains a piece from Dave Ulrich, attributed with introducing the HR BP model.

Another place to start is the IES White Paper, (2015) HR Business Partners: Yes Please or No Thanks. In this one there is the common-sense suggestion that to get to the ‘right answer’ on both HR operating model design and HR BPs ‘What we probably need instead is better internal dialogue between stakeholders on what the optimum balance might be between HR’s role and line managers’ responsibilities. HR for its part needs to consider its structure in the light of this debate’.

Specifically, on HR Business Partners the IES notes that: ‘whilst organisations have to decide whether business partners are worth the investment, they also have to settle on their conception of the role and make sure it fits business needs, manager requirements and their own staff capability. If this critical thinking is not done there is the probability of continuing customer and colleague frustration and frequent questioning of the value of the role.’

What’s your view on the HR BP role?  Let me know.

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