A leader’s role in organisation design and development work

(Each of my blogs in August is an edited extract from my book Organisation Design: the Practitioner’s GuideThis is the first – from Chapter 9)

Leaders play a critical role in three ways in relation to organisation design and development (OD & D) work: stating and explaining the ‘why’ of design or development; supporting people in making sense of the context that the OD & D work is responding to; and telling the stories of how it is going. Here I discuss these three aspects.

There is no value in doing OD & D work if the ‘why’ of doing it is not clear to people. Too frequently, unfortunately, the ‘why’ is not obvious – ‘if things are going nicely, then why change them?’ is a common response to proposed OD & D work. Reasons for doing OD & D work that are rather vague, for example, to be more adaptable’, ‘to be fit for the future’ or ‘to be more competitive’ are not enough to convince people that the value to be gained from OD & D is worth the effort.

It is an organization’s leaders to state the ‘why’ do an OD & D piece of work in words that are meaningful to stakeholders so that stakeholders understand how the new design will affect them.

Simon Sinek, who wrote a book ‘Start with Why’ , says that a ‘why?’ statement has two parts: first, a part that clearly expresses the unique contribution and second a part that conveys the impact of an organization. For example, the UK has a Financial Conduct Authority. Why? ‘To make financial markets work well so that consumers get a fair deal’. The organization’s contribution is ‘to make financial markets work well’ and the impact is ‘so that consumers get a fair deal’

Taking the same approach to an OD & D piece of work in the Financial Conduct Authority, asking the question, ‘Why do OD & D?’ might result in a statement like ‘To make our business quicker at identifying and responding to European Union regulatory changes so that citizens are well informed and prepared when the changes happen.’

A leadership team that spends time really thinking through the question ‘Why do OD & D work?’ – focusing on its impact on the work and the workforce – makes a big difference to the speed at which work can progress.

Explaining the ‘why?’ of  OD & D work helps people make sense of what is going on. Leaders often see more of the context, and have more of the ‘puzzle pieces’, than people who are focused on doing a particular task or role. Having access to the ‘bigger picture’ puts leaders in a good position to make sense of complex environments for themselves.  It is then the leader’s responsibility to help employees understand the ‘why’ make sense of it and put it into their own words so that within a short space of time a reasonably consistent and common view emerges of the reasons for the OD & D activity.

Sense-making is an important part of OD & D work.   People typically become anxious in situations that they are not expecting, or that come across as uncertain and ambiguous. They look to leaders to interpret and make sense of the situation for (or with) them. Failure to do this on the leaders’ part leads to heightened anxiety and multiple individual interpretations of the situation.

Deborah Ancona, director of the MIT Leadership Center at the Sloan School of Management, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, explains how leaders go about sense-making:

This sense-making ability is a particularly important predictor of leadership effectiveness right now. … It requires executives to let go of their old mental models and some of their core assumptions; to take in data from a wide variety of sources; to use the information they have to construct, with others, a ‘map’ of what they think is going on; and to verify and update the map – in part by conducting small experiments that provide the organization with more information.

Researcher Sally Maitlis found that leaders approach their role of supporting collective sense-making in one of four ways:

  • Guided, where they are ‘energetic in constructing and promoting understanding and explanations of events’;
  • Fragmented, where leaders are not trying to control or organize discussions but allowing stakeholders to generate alternative pictures;
  • Restricted, where leaders promote their own sense of what is going on with little stakeholder involvement; and
  • Minimal, when both leaders and stakeholders await some other interpretation of the issues.

If leaders of OD & D work take a combination of guided and fragmented sense-making approaches then stakeholders are more likely to feel involved in the design process. This is tricky to handle. The guiding sets the framework and the outlines; the fragmenting allows for local or individual interpretation within the framework.

Explaining the ‘why?’ and guiding stakeholder sense-making can be supported by storytelling. Be aware that although stories can be an effective and inspirational tool to make sense of what happens in organizations, or to inspire, provoke or stimulate change they can also be used to mask the truth or to manipulate.

Writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, in her Ted talk ‘The Danger of a Single Story’,  reinforces this point, saying: ‘Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.’ She follows this by warning of the dangers of a ‘single story’ or (as a common organizational phrase has it) ‘one version of the truth’. (This phrase originally came from the technology world, in relation to having a data warehouse that was the single source of organizational data.)

Adichie goes on to say:

‘It is impossible to talk about the single story without talking about power. There is a word, an Igbo word, that I think about whenever I think about the power structures of the world, and it is nkali. It’s a noun that loosely translates to ‘to be greater than another’. Like our economic and political worlds, stories too are defined by the principle of nkali: how they are told, who tells them, when they’re told, how many stories are told, are really dependent on power.’

For her, ‘many stories matter’ – a single story does not illustrate a complex situation. When telling stories, leaders should recognize that there are many possible stories about the same situation. Effective leaders, who are good as storytellers, neither abuse their power nor tell a single story. They tell many stories – drawn from guided and fragmented sense-making – and they tell these stories from a position of equality and respect, illustrating organizational complexity, a diversity of views, and their own responses to uncertainty. Stories told this way – that explain the why, and acknowledge uncertainty and anxiety – help to build confidence in, and an emotional connection to, the new design. They also demonstrate authentic, transformational leadership.

What would help your organisational leaders do effective OD & D work?  Let me know.

Image: Jane Ash Poitras

The tyranny of metrics

When I read a review of Jerry Muller’s book, The Tyranny of Metrics, I immediately ordered a copy from my library.   I went to collect it the other day.

Risking the charge of confirmation bias, I nodded approvingly to myself when I read on page 3, ‘And gaming is only one class of problems that inevitably arise when using performance metrics as the basis of reward or sanction.’  As Muller points out ‘The things that get measured may draw effort away from the things that we really care about.’

Jonathan Harris, in his wonderful artpiece, Data Can Help Us, (image for this blog) also points this out in a series of provocative sentences, for example:  Data ‘will help educators make excellent standardised tests, but will it help us embrace different standards of excellence?’ (Here I had a brief pause to check if data is/are singular or plural) Harris warns us of the dangers of abandoning timeless decision-making tools like wisdom, morality, and personal experience in favour of data converted into numbers.

Similarly, Muller notes that ‘The most characteristic feature of metric fixation is the aspiration to replace judgement based on experience with standardized measurement’.

It’s not that numbers are ‘wrong’, it’s that converting data into meaningful numbers that are useful and could produce good outcomes is not easily done, as a good example in an HBR article Know the Difference Between Your Data and Your Metrics illustrates.  The authors say ‘As we learned, there is a difference between numbers and numbers that matter.’

I was drawn to Muller’s book because I work in a field, organisation design and development, where it is almost impossible to identify what numbers might matter – assuming that it is sensible to even try to reduce organisation development or organisation design to a metric, or set of metrics.   If I am asked to suggest meaningful metrics that might show that what OD & D practitioners do produces value (and for whom) I find it hard to offer anything with confidence.

One reason for this is that the metric required is often a monetary return-on-investment one (dollars or pounds).   However, a monetary unit is a different unit of measurement from what are sought as outcomes of the piece of work which could be, for example, increased collaboration, aligned leadership, a ‘one-team’ culture, etc). We expect that if the input is in money – cost of time to design and deliver the work, that the outcome will also be in money.

In any instance where the input unit is not the same as the output unit we are not comparing like units.  Sticking with money as an input unit, we could try and convert the outcome to units of money, but these would be proxy measures.  They distort how we see the outcomes.  There are several factors contributing to the distortion, among them:

  • we don’t know that there is a direct cause/effect relationship between the OD & D work what we are looking for in results
  • the conversion to like units is not easy to do – what are the proxy metrics of ‘aligned leadership’, for example, that would give us a monetary value?
  • interventions don’t create outcomes – they may create a different context that enable something to change – but it may not be what is expected.

Toby Lowe, a researcher on managing performance at the UK’s Newcastle University is clear that, ‘The simplification required to measure and attribute ‘outcomes’ turns the organisation and delivery of social interventions into a game, the rules of which promote gamesmanship, distorting the behaviour of organisations, managers and practitioners who undertake it.’

I collected Muller’s book a day or two after coming back from the ODNE conference where I spoke on the sacred cows of organisation development:  a sacred cow being an organisational or societal norm that is accepted without question.  (Until it is questioned – for example votes for women came about after challenging the sacred cow that only men could vote).

One of the ‘sacred cows’ I offered for discussion was ‘Organisation development activity can deliver tangible business results’, asking participants to consider what would happen if we did not give up this sacred cow, and what would happen if we did give it up.  There was some debate on what ‘tangible’ results are, and a lot of debate on the issues around ‘proving’ the ROI of the OD & D work.

Too late to share in the conference, I find that Gerry Muller offers a thoughtful 10-point checklist on how to approach the use of performance metrics.  He notes, before presenting the list, that ‘measurement demands judgement: judgement about whether to measure, what to measure, how to evaluate the significance of what’s been measured, whether rewards and penalties will be attached to the results, and to whom to make the measurements available.’  (Judgement is not measurable.)  Here are the checklist items with a summary quote from the fuller explanation that Muller gives:

  • What kind of information are you thinking of measuring – ‘measurements attached to human activity are not reliable unless the humans agree with the goals of the measurement’.
  • How useful is the information? ‘the ease of measuring may be inversely proportional to the significance of what is measured’.
  • How useful are more metrics? ‘the fact that metrics is helpful doesn’t mean that more metrics is more helpful’.
  • What are the costs of not relying on upon standardized measurement? ‘Are there sources of information about performance, based on the judgement and experience of clients?’
  • To what purposes will the measurement be put? ‘Here a key distinction is between data to be used for purposes of internal monitoring by the practitioners themselves versus data to be used by external parties for reward and punishment’.
  • What are the costs of acquiring the metrics? ‘Information is never free, and often it is expensive in ways that rarely occur to those who demand more of it’.
  • Ask why people at the top of the organisation are demanding performance metrics. ‘Sometimes [this] flows from the ignorance of executives about the institutions they’ve been hired to manage.’
  • How and by whom are the measures of performance developed? ‘Measurements are more likely to be meaningful when they are developed from the bottom up … from direct experience’.
  • Remember that even the best measures are subject to corruption or goal diversion. ‘There are inevitable drawbacks to all schemes of measured reward’.
  • Recognising the limits of the possible is the beginning of wisdom. ‘Not all problems are solvable, and even fewer are solvable by metrics.’

Do you think that the outcomes of OD & D work can be identified and then converted into useful proxy measures to show ROI?  Let me know.


Internal and external OD & D consulting

A friend has just asked me what she can expect moving from being an internal to being an external consultant in the field of organisation development and design (OD & D) and how she should prepare herself for the move.

It’s too easy to look at two-column tables that highlight the differences.  I have one from Gary McLean’s book Organization Development: Principles, Processes, Performance . This tells me, for example that internal consultants ‘know the organisational culture better than an external can ever know it’ while external consultants ‘do not have pre-knowledge of the organisational culture, so do not enter the process with any preconceived notions.’   And, ‘[Internal consultants] have relationships established that can get cooperation more quickly’, while external consultants are ‘Often given more respect by insiders because they are not known except by reputation’.  You can see another table adapted from Field Guide to Consulting and Organizational Development here.

At first glance these differentiations look ok but take a more critical look and you’ll see several assumptions around the statements. For example, can we safely assume that external consultants do not come to an organisation with preconceived notions?

Additionally, the lists appear binary – know the culture/don’t know the culture.  In terms of giving support to someone making the transition from internal to external consulting, the statements are not that useful. They are superficial observations not actionable insights that would help my friend get to grips with a different take on what is often perceived to be a similar role.  Consultancy.UK, for example, states, ‘An internal consultant is, at first glance, just like an external consultant: a professional that is hired to solve an organisational problem and implement the solutions in order to improve the performance of an organisation.’

More importantly these types of comparisons don’t address how:

  1. Theories and approaches to OD & D are evolving
  2. Changes are being made to way the OD & D is being ‘done’ in organisations (assuming it is ‘do-able’ see last week’s blog)
  3. The evolution of theories of OD & D and the way it is done has a consequential impact on the role of internal and external OD & D consultants and the relationships and interdependencies they are part of

O & D is about changing aspects or the whole organisation.  As Sturdy and Wylie find ‘change has become normalised or business as usual in many contexts’ and, to paraphrase, that rationalist theories that suggest that ‘change’ is a ‘thing’ amenable to linear, planned and structured approaches, is shifting towards theories that change is complex, ‘fragmented and incoherent’.

This evolution is leading to thinking that OD & D is less of specialist/expert capability and more of a generic leadership/management capability,  or even a whole organisation one which is ‘dispersed and decentred’ in a number of ways including through various individuals, formal teams and informal groups.

If OD & D consultants are to migrate from structured approaches e.g. Appreciative Inquiry’s four step model of discovery, dream, design, destiny/deliver, and if OD & D is becoming accepted as both a management capability and an organisational capability then what does that mean for the expert OD & D consultant?

It means thinking about a different ‘offer’.  This is a challenge to management consultancy in general, as managers become less commanders, and more consultants themselves.  McKinsey, for example, is one consulting company changing its offer.  It ‘is targeting medium-sized companies, which would not have been able to afford its fees, by offering shorter projects with smaller “startup-sized” teams. As it chases growth, the firm is also doing things it used to eschew as being insufficiently glamorous. In 2010 it moved into business restructuring and it has also set up a global strategy “implementation” practice. That is a far cry from the days when its consultants stuck mainly to blue-sky thoughts in their ivory towers.’

This shifting landscape me wondering what I can tell my friend to expect as she moves from internal to external OD & D consulting.   Some thoughts:

  • On the whole context shift that I outlined above she can expect to have to keep a close watch on organisations she is interested in a see how their approach to hiring and using external consultants is changing, although for this she’d have to have access to insider knowledge.
  • She can expect to have to keep her own skills honed as the theories and practices of OD & D change.  I wrote on this topic in 2014 and re-reading the piece I can see an update is necessary as skills required have moved on since then.
  • As OD & D becomes a capability reliant less on individual expertise and more on collective capability she can expect to act more as a coach, mentor and support to managers (assuming her knowledge is current or even in the vanguard of thinking).
  • In terms of her own job satisfaction she can expect to feel a range of emotions that are different from those she might have felt as an internal consultant.  There’s the financial insecurity, the worry about business development, and the isolation if you go-it-alone.  These types of downsides are balanced against the autonomy to accept or reject work, the ability to develop skills and experience by working with a variety of organisations, and the opportunity to meet and build relationships with more people than you typically meet as an internal consultant.

What do you think she can expect as she moves from an internal to an external OD & D consulting role?  Let me know.

Image:  Henry Moore, Upright Internal External Form

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