Dev Mookherjee
25 October, 2021

By Sarah Beart & Dev Mookherjee

When a senior leader realises that their organisation is not performing well, or well enough, they often commission a redesign, and task a small design group to start thinking about how they could be better organised. The temptation for the design team is to start tinkering with org charts, add in new roles to bridge perceived gaps, and identify savings and synergies.

However, we believe that what SHOULD take centre stage at this point is getting the design team sufficiently clear and aligned on the strategy. After all, you want them to be designing based on choices you have made about the purpose of the organisation and your beliefs about how it will succeed in possible future contexts, in short, you want the FORM of the organisation to follow its FUNCTION. So we are always curious about how people understand the strategy, and how well-designed the organisation is to make it happen.

Often leaders are impatient to see an org chart, and resist opening up any conversation about strategy at this stage. Many have a fear opening the Pandora’s box of strategy. Or they are impatient “we’ve talked ENDLESSLY about the strategy and everyone is PERFECTLY CLEAR! GRRRR” (often accompanied with an eye roll).  But as one of Michael Frayn’s characters in Matchbox Theatre comments “There are masses of things I want to be clear about. Since I am being so absolutely clear about them, and since one totally transparent thing looks so much like another totally transparent thing, it’s difficult to tell one from the other.”

Inquiring into the Strategy: what we find

Often people do know the headlines, and the desired outcome but they haven’t thought about HOW it’s going to happen. When starting a process of re-design we often carry out interviews with a range of staff and stakeholders with questions including:

– How clear are you about the strategy (they often know at least some of WHAT the strategy is but have little idea of how they choose to make it happen)

– How well organised are you to deliver the strategy? Frequently this provokes a tumbleweed moment – because people haven’t had time to think about this – whether the current form really does enable what they’re trying to achieve.

In his 1992 letter to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders, Warren Buffett said, “It’s only when the tide goes out that you learn who’s been swimming naked.” These inquiry questions pull the tide right out on the strategy and exposes the flotsam and jetsam of strategic thinking, unresolved or unspoken disagreements about strategy (and maybe the odd wreck of previous strategies).

Any senior team who are going to be making the decisions about org design need to have a good enough shared understanding of a good-enough shared strategy if they are going to make good decisions about the design. So that’s where good participative organisation design starts.

Inquiry about terminology should not be avoided – it is the work!

Often, we find that time is expended by groups working on design on understanding what others’ mean when they use certain terms. There is a “dialogic pull” to move to a shared language around what we are trying to do and what we mean by different activities. Examples of this are what exactly is being done under the banner of “commercial” or “compliance” or “operations”. Different parts of the organization may have very different assumptions about the activities implied by different terms. We would suggest that you don’t fight the need for conversation – it’s no reflection on you if there are things that need clearing up, or that new ideas emerge. It’s a natural part of doing org design work, to be welcomed and allowed space and time.

This strategic conversation helps you build a coherent shared narrative about why you needed to redesign, why you have chosen the design you have chosen and how you expect this to help you deliver your strategy

In summary

– Org design is done to help you deliver strategy, so it requires you to look at strategy

– This is needed and not to be feared

– Good participative org re-design processes help you get your senior team to have a shared language and sense of purpose

– This helps you take the rest of the organization along because there is a clear enough shared narrative about the need for re-design and the background to the choices you have made – you will be appropriately clothed for conversations with the wider organisation

Need help with your organization design conversations? Get in touch!

We at Metalogue have developed a tool (www.orgwith.com) to help in-house organization designers to facilitate activity-based design conversations. If you would like a demo of Orgwith™ get in touch at the following email address: orgwith-admin@metalogue.co.uk

Sources

Buffett, Warren. Berkshire Hathaway: Letter to Shareholders (1992)

Frayn, Michael. (2014) “Matchbox Theatre: thirty short entertainments”, Faber & Faber: London

Goold, M & A. Campbell. “Do you have a well designed organization?” in Harvard Business Review, March 2002

Sullivan, Louis H. (1896). “The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered”. Lippincott’s Magazine (March 1896): 403–409. Quoted on Wikipedia: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Form_follows_function

Photo: Dev Mookherjee

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