Agreeing what organisation design means

Last week I asked if being a Certified Organisation Design Professional is an individual or organisational value-add which provoked a bit of discussion with one person tweeting ‘not before we agree on what organisation design means … ‘

That gave me pause for thought.  What does organisation design mean?  The original tweet statement is ambiguous and open to interpretation.  Is it about the philosophy of organisation design – what it means in the great scheme of things, rather like the question ‘what does life mean?’

Or is it a practical question that is more about scope – what would be in a ‘package’ of organisation design if we were buying it.  Which, of course, is what people are doing when they buy organisation design consultants’ time and expertise.

Or is it about the words themselves – a definition for the phrase ‘organisation design’.  Or is it something else that relates organisation design to meaning?

I couldn’t just drop the question because during the week it came up in various meetings I was in.  Not as the blunt question – what does organisation design mean? – but more as a subtle probing and poking, first as I ran a pilot of a one-day organisation design course for line managers, second as I worked with a colleague to develop the outlines for 5 x 30 minute tip-sessions for general awareness about organisation design, third in a discussion with the Organisation Design Forum Board who are working on their annual strategic plan and fourth as I ran a 1 hour intro to organisation structure charts – what they do and don’t tell us.

Focusing on the conversation with the ODF Board, this went in the more philosophical direction.  Organisation design means designing good work in a context that retains the human spirit where efficiency and effectiveness metrics are balanced with positive social contribution.  Socio-tech thinking came up as an something to explore further in this part of the discussion. Developing this idea that organisation design means fulfilling a business (say efficiency) imperative with a social obligation to people led the discussion towards ethics and another question.  Does organisation design mean adherence to a code of ethics?

Out of curiosity – according to an article in the current issue of HBR a great attribute to have –they say we should cultivate it – I wondered how an actual philosopher would tackle the question ‘What does organisation design mean?’  This took me down several interesting routes – I learned about analytic and synthetic methods, about instrumental and intrinsic value and got lost in the maze of possibilities.  Sharply pulling myself out of wandering I thought we could hand the question to a research student interested in philosophy and organisation design.

If the question is more about the scope of organisation design – what is in the ‘package’ of it that gets sold by consultants to clients, there are plenty of examples to share on what people put in their packages.  Take a look at Change Works Designed Organization (TM) 7 step approach, for example or Kates Kesler’s Five Milestone Design Process or Axelrod Group’s Conference Model® for organisation design.   (Note the principals in these organisations are members of the ODF Advisory Group).

Each of these consultant’s packages of organisation design – what it means to them differ.  I wonder if we have enough conversations with clients on the question ‘what does organisation design mean?’ in respect to the various ‘packages’ on offer in order to find one that is a good match.  Whether we could agree on the ‘right’ package is a moot point – the philosophy investigation led me to thinking that what organisation design means is subjective rather than objective.

If the question is more about the definition of organisation design – again there are lots to choose from: Take Nicolay Worren’s blog ‘What is organisation design?’ From this a reader learns that OD means more than ‘boxology’, involving ‘the creation of roles, processes and structures to ensure that the organization’s goals can be realized’.  The Center for Organizational Design says, ‘Organizational design is a step-by-step methodology which identifies dysfunctional aspects of work flow, procedures, structures and systems’.   McKinsey describes organisation design as ‘going beyond lines and boxes to define decision rights, accountabilities, internal governance, and linkages’.

It’s striking that what these definitions have in common is they are about the ‘hard’ aspects of the organisation – coming from the roots of systems theory.  They are not about the ‘soft’ aspects that come from the roots of social and behavioural science and form the basis of organisation development.   The two fields are distinctly different.  I saw these distinctions played out in another experience I had last week.

I spent Wednesday in the day-surgery ward of a hospital. Not me having surgery but someone I was accompanying.  From my companion status I was able to observe how the organisation design – systems, processes, decisions made, technologies, hierarchies of staff, protocols followed, floor layouts, and so on played out in the course of the day.

But I also observed that we (patient plus companion) felt safe in the process, cared for and treated with kindness and dignity – the interactions of the staff between themselves and with us spoke of development activity that complemented the design activity.

Synthesising these various lines of enquiry leads me to suggest that to answer the question ‘What does organisation design mean’ we have to look from at least the three perspectives I’ve discussed:

  1. What does organisation design work mean in a more philosophical sense for organisational stakeholders and how can our work have a positive outcome and meaning for them?
  2. What do we mean by the process of doing organisation design – what’s in the ‘package’ of it and what is the methodology we use?
  3. What do we understand by the words ‘organisation design’ in order to arrive at a (systems) definition of it that does not blur the design with development?

Whether we can agree any of these three, I don’t know.  Also, I’m not sure what the value would be in agreeing in order to underpin an Organisation Design Certification.  If the process of certifying is rigorous (see my questions on the Certification) and focuses on the design rather than the development aspects of organisation this may be more valuable to organisations and practitioners than getting to any objective agreement on what organisation design means.  (Though perhaps, I’m wrong in assuming that agreement implies a objective interpretation and application.)

The forthcoming Organisation Design Forum Conference (October 19 -20) offers a forum for discussing the question.  Maybe I’ll give it a go.

What do you think organisation design means? Should we agree on it?  Let me know.

Image:  Do we all agree?