Throughout 2020, we conducted an action research project with our clients into the practice of designing organisations. One observation we made is that most organisations are in a constant process of redesigning themselves as they adapt to ever-increasing levels of uncertainty and complexity. Because of this, organisations are becoming more fluid and structures more transitory. As 2020 unfolded, we observed and heard how the pandemic is amplifying and accelerating this process.
In many organisations, multiple design projects are happening simultaneously at different levels. For instance, we are working with a large and complex University that is changing its structures and working practices across the whole system whilst at the same time individual faculties and schools within them are reorganising how they operate. In many cases, we heard how the tail end of one design project overlaps with the start of the next. For employees this can leave them feeling in permanent transition and struggling to make sense of how to make decisions or get things done. This stirs up anxieties and insecurities.
These observations led us to conclude that organisation design is increasingly an ongoing and iterative process. We need therefore to shift our thinking away from creating ‘the design’ – which suggests the construction of a static, enduring entity – towards ‘designing’ as a critical ongoing practice in organisations.
Our research indicates that designing requires:
– Keeping the future in mind whilst drawing on past experiences to understand what will work in a given culture
– Accepting that designing is a messy and unfolding process and not a neat linear one
– Focusing on ‘good enough’ design decisions that are able to adapt and flex with feedback
– Creating ownership by involving people to develop ideas and make decisions
– Encouraging the questioning of assumptions and creating space to explore design options and possibilities
– Taking transitions seriously and undertaking realistic assessments of support people will require to let go of the past, learn new skills, and take up new roles
To make this shift, we argue that organisations need to possess the expertise and capability to design and redesign themselves, and leaders at all levels need to see designing as a core part of their role.
If you want to read more about our research, you can download our report “Whose design is it anyway?”