Could we use a Design Authority?

There’s been a lot of talk recently about ‘organisational alignment’.  For example, Jonathan Trevor and Barry Varcoe in an HBR article tell us that ‘Most executives today know their enterprises should be aligned. They know their strategies, organizational capabilities, resources, and management systems should all be arranged to support the enterprise’s purpose. The challenge is that executives tend to focus on one of these areas to the exclusion of the others, but what really matters for performance is how they all fit together.’

If reading the article prompts you to want a course on organisational alignment, MIT offers Building Game-Changing Organizations: Aligning Purpose, Performance, and People, or if a video is more your taste watch Stanford University’s How to Align Your Organization to Execute Strategy

For those of us who enjoy the academic research and theoretical underpinnings of a buzz-phrase like ‘organisational alignment’ take a look atOrganizational alignment A model to explain the relationships between organizational relevant variables.’ International Journal of Organizational Analysis. It’s an excellent article.

Assuming the need to align organisational elements in order to successfully deliver the strategy.   (I’ve already assumed there is a strategy), and assuming that organisational alignment falls within the remit of organisation design activity,  then how do designers  know that aligning  is actually happening?  Is there a way of tracking progress from unaligned to aligned and then  re-aligned –  qualitatively and quantitatively –  in order to satisfy people who need to see an ROI on what they might think is nugatory alignment activity and in order to satisfy organisation designers that their work is helping the organisation to align?

Unfortunately, info on tracking alignment progress is where the popular articles fall down and the research points to ‘more research needed’.

None of the work on organisational alignment I’ve come across talks about governing and tracking progress of organisational alignment through a Design Authority.  The concept and use of a Design Authority is common in the software world and well known to Enterprise Architects  and, I think, could be applied to organisational alignment.

If you are not familiar with the term, in the Enterprise Architecture world a design authority is a role or body that ‘provides assurance that solution designs are fit for purpose, working to ensure that each component meets requirements and integrates and works within the complex enterprise architecture. This requires development and imposition of architecture and design controls; defining and enforcing architecture standards, methodologies, processes, tools and frame works against which services and projects can deliver.’

This type of Design Authority ensures alignment of specific enterprise elements.  On-line you can find many Terms of Reference for these technical Design Authorities.  The UK’s University of Reading one is typical, describing the role and function of their Authority as follows:

‘The Design Authority Group

  • Reviews requirements to make sure they are clear and have the appropriate level of detail and clarity.
  • Ensures that the requirements of the solution are being met by the proposed solution design.
  • Engages with projects, programmes and workstreams to build and maintain the design pipeline.
  • Engages with projects, programmes and workstreams to ensure that the correct design governance is being applied (e.g. suitable authorship of design and expert input).
  • Reviews the technical input and subject matter expertise input into the proposed solution design, covering areas such as the definition of requirements, legal compliance, security considerations, functional fit, technological capability, cost, support modelling (such as skill and resource requirements) and delivery capability.
  • Assesses the feasibility of the proposed solution, specifically the functional capability and the organisational fit.
  • Provides a broader review and assessment of solution and delivery interdependencies and integration / interface requirement.
  • Ensures technical risk is being managed.
  • Escalates / reports design submissions and approvals to the ISMG.
  • Escalates challenges to architecture principles and design guidelines to the Enterprise Architecture Advisory Board (EAAB).
  • Reviews and approves design change’

Looking at this, it provides a useful model that could be used for tracking and monitoring business organisational alignment/design.

I can hear a number of objections being raised to the idea of governing and tracking organisation alignment and design work through a Design Authority these include:  it’ll become a meaningless, bureaucratic process.  It’s too time consuming.  Designs ‘emerge’ they can’t be ‘governed’.  We have enough governance in our organisation – there’s no place to introduce more.   It’s too difficult to track organisation alignment progress.  You can’t measure alignment because there’s no trackable cause/effect, and so on.

I can hear far fewer voices saying – ‘This is a great idea.  Let’s explore it’, but I think it’s worth a go at overcoming negativity bias on this topic.   Let’s consider what benefits a Design Authority would bring to organisational alignment work.  Although this depends on the organisation and its degree of maturity, in general it would bring

  • A degree of discipline to a design process – if you work in an organisation that employs external consultants to help with design work you’ll find they take different approaches, use different languages, and tend to focus on the bit they are being paid to look at and not the interdependencies with other parts of the organisation and the knock-on effects. A Design Authority could look across the design work and make sensible join-up suggestions and/or recommend a consistent design process/taxonomy that headed an organisation towards alignment.
  • A forum for overseeing whole system alignment and appropriate integration. Too often leaders are focused on day-to-day delivery at the expense of more strategic and longer-term considerations. A Design Authority could take a more systemic view asking questions like: Are we connecting and collaborating in an efficient way?  Is there stuff we need to abandon?  (On this, read about Peter Drucker’s planned abandonment exercise – one I use a lot in my work).  Are there gaps in delivery? Are customers experiencing a ‘seamless service’?  Are we managing our interdependencies and interfaces effectively?
  • A monitoring and tracking function for specific organisation design work. In many cases design work stalls, or stops at the end of the design phase without effectively transitioning, or fails to respond to context changes quickly enough.  An effective Design Authority could keep tabs on progress and intervene as needed – perhaps to help maintain momentum, perhaps to recommend calling it a day and closing the work down, perhaps to show where specific designs were not meeting overall alignment criteria.
  • A learning capability to organisational alignment and design thinking. A Design Authority that requested/reviewed learning from the design process, learning from other pieces of work that had gone down similar routes, and helping develop the skills of line managers in organisation design and alignment work would be an organisational additionality.

To get these kind of benefits means acknowledging the concerns of the naysayers, and developing a Design Authority which does not prove their point and which is effective and value-add.  Brian MacDonald wrote a blog Making the Design Authority More Effective that gives five pointers.  He says

  • ‘Start with an executive sponsor or “champion” Newly formed Design Authorities always need a senior executive sponsor or champion who can coach them on how to be effective within the organisation and help them put their recommendations into practice.
  • Define “effective” The stakeholders in will have widely divergent perspectives on what makes a Design Authority effective.
  • Establish process early and document decisions The process followed by a DA should have a degree of formalism to it such that people new to the DA can understand how it functions and how they can successfully engage with it.
  • Evolve the DA as it gains credibility and influence Successful DAs … tend to be those that have started small and have then evolved as they have been given greater scope and responsibility.
  • Restrict membership One of the big challenges with any DA is keeping the number of participants to a workable number while still providing required coverage for complex topics and multiple stakeholder organisations. (A technique that can help with this challenge is to establish different categories of participation).’

Do you think a well-designed Design Authority would add value in shaping organisational alignment?  Let me know.

Image: Organisational alignment is the glue