16 March, 2021
As part of our research into the practice of designing organisations, we spoke to leaders and practitioners about their experience and reflections on organisation design projects. Most of them acknowledged that, with the benefit of hindsight, they had not given sufficient attention to how changes would be brought to life.
In every case, we were told that the amount of time and resources that was necessary was underestimated. Looking back, most felt that transitions require a minimum of 12-18 months and that 18-24 months is more realistic, particularly for more complex changes. In practice however all the attention goes on agreeing what the organisation needs to look like in the future, and significantly less attention is directed towards:
• What is being communicated through the process
• How people will transition into new roles, teams and departments.
We discovered that embedded in the design process and subsequent organisational transitions were culture-creating moments. These related to how any changes were done. They included events such as:
1. Who was involved in the design process
2. How design changes were decided
3. How the changes were communicated and the rationale given for them
4. How senior appointments were managed
5. Who was appointed to key roles
6. How exits or redundancies were managed
7. How the new design was launched or went ‘live’
8. The extent to which endings, transitions and beginnings were acknowledged.
In these moments, important symbolic questions are addressed through what actually happens (rather than what is espoused). These include:
• Who will be included and who will be excluded?
• How will power be exercised and decisions made?
• What is actually changing and what is staying the same?
• What will be valued in the future (and what won’t)?
Such moments define or re-define cultural norms and convey the actual values of senior leaders. What happens around these events, therefore, reinforces the core messages of the redesign or undermines them. They influence people’s commitment to the new design, the relationships that form and whether people act in ways that support the aims of the organisation.
Consciously attending to process
The emotional impact of these key moments is significant but is often underestimated or avoided because they surface sensitivities or uncomfortable issues. They are however unavoidable realities of the re-design process and opportunities to model desired norms or values. They need therefore to be engaged with consciously and with sensitivity to ensure that consistent, meaningful and clear messages are communicated. This can be difficult to do when you are steeped in an established culture or in the midst of a complex design process. The risk however is you sleepwalk into reinforcing the very patterns you want to change. In organisation design projects, as well as supporting the design process, we help everyone involved to attend to transitions and the symbolic, emotional and cultural dynamics of the process.
If you would like to read our research report, you can download it here:
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