It is by no means business as usual for anyone during this crisis period. While the impact varies from individual to individual, we are all living with less certainty, often more anxiety, and questioning some of the taken for granted in our lives.

Organisations too are re-thinking what they do, and how they do it- in many cases coming right back to fundamental questions of meaning and purpose. Our engineering clients are engaging with the challenges of building ventilators and producing PPE. Our clients in tourism have been concerned with getting people home safely- and playing their part in keeping the supply chain going for vital things such as food & medicine.

Like many consultancies we have been asked to find innovative ways of continuing essential assignments. Indeed people have been surprised at how much you can still get done in the virtual space once you get over the new rules of engagement.  Sarah Beart’s blog on virtual working  is well worth reading on these.

We have noticed that many organisations are needing to re-evaluate and adapt their structures or ways of working to adapt to the new reality. The broad principles we follow continue to apply,  however some things need to be emphasised more than ever.

With that in mind, our (slightly revisited) 10 top tips for organisation design are…

1.  Be as clear as you can be on what the strategy is AND see organisation design as an opportunity to continue to engage people in the development and the implementation of strategy. At this time of heightened uncertainty the importance of making sense together is even more crucial. We’ve had many a light bulb moment in workshops as the implications of a strategy memo suddenly become much clearer- this will be even more the case at the moment.

2. Create a small and representative design team to work on this and give them a clear remit. With the right facilitation support they will design for the strategy & for the future- and most importantly feel ownership of the new design.

3. Pay even more attention than usual to communication. We’ve seen great examples of very open communication by CEOs in the last 6 weeks- very conscious that distrust and paranoia thrive in a vacuum. The same also applies to organisation design work: even more attention than usual needs to be paid to communicating on the process and the decisions that are being taken to those who are not part of the design team.

4. Build a real warts and all picture of what is and isn’t working about the current structure. And share that picture (with the warts) as you start the re-design work so you have enough shared context from which to work.

5. Trust that a good design process (like ours) will get you to a good outcome for your organisation– even though no one knows at the outset what that outcome will be. As we said to a workshop participant recently “We haven’t failed yet”.

6. Beware of the sketch someone (the CEO/ an expert consultant) has drawn up on the back of an envelope and which is “the answer”. It might not be a bad idea- but it won’t have the right level of ownership in the organisation to allow for a successful implementation

7. Be pacey – but don’t rush it. This work is important for any organisation and has significant implications- so it’s important to take the time to get it right. That doesn’t mean it has to take years. Our experience suggests that 6-8 weeks is enough to come up with a well thought through robust organisational design.

8. Be creative. In the last few weeks face to face workshops have gone virtual- and clients have been positively surprised at the quality of work that they have been able to do.

9. Plan for implementation up-front. A significant re-design always requires implementation resource: leadership time, HR, internal communication and some project coordination. Don’t be surprised by this!

10. Plan for transition support. Individuals will end up in new roles needing to do all the “traditional” management stuff (set new KPIs, implement new governance processes, create new leadership teams etc) AND in all likelihood with individuals in their teams requiring significant emotional support. At the best of times it will typically takes 6 months to individuals to be fully up & running in a new structure. It might take longer this time, and not providing appropriate support runs the risk of not realising the benefits of your re-design.

We hope these tips and pointers are helpful. What would you add from your own experience?

The gift is the present

We both attended a recent meeting which started with this exchange…

John:  “Can we spend some time preparing our plan for the future?”

Pam:  “I think we spend too much time thinking about the future and the past – can we pay more attention to what’s going on for us right now?”

This conversation reminded us that we are often willfully or unconsciously not fully present when preparing for the future. Inherent in assumptions of working with strategy is that strategy is “all about the future”. We are often invited to hold or facilitate “blue-sky brain-storming” or to help prepare scenarios for “The [insert organisation name] 2025 Vision”. John and Pam’s exchange got us thinking that rather than just accept the notion that we need to separate the future from the past and present, perhaps we needed to consider a more helpful way of working on strategy.

Well, there are certainly benefits of an exclusively future focused approach in developing strategy which can include…

– lots of energy and excitement from the executive team about future possibilities

– we start to feel creative, powerful and omnipotent when unencumbered from the heavy responsibilities of day to day delivery, thus forgetting that we exist in an emerging present (George Santayana) and we can participate in the future but not change it (David Lewis).

– it breaks assumptions about what’s possible by unhooking us from the assumptions restricting our thinking. Note: Dan Gilbert challenges our ability to do this by arguing that we under-estimate our change in interests, views and preferences because we often find it difficult to imagine a future for ourselves that is different.

However, the downside of the full future focus is that…

– we end up only paying attention to data signals from users, customers and the market which confirm our intended future (termed confirmation bias by Wason) and therefore miss opportunities and threats.

– we ignore the organizational myths and rituals from the past which could shape or frame the perception of future possibilities – e.g. “we tried to offer services ten years ago and it nearly killed us”.

– we pay insufficient attention to the possibilities inherent in what we are currently doing. It could be a current product, service or capability which could become the revenue stream of tomorrow. An example of this is how Amazon Web Services was transformed from being a back office enabling function supporting the Amazon retailing business to a significant and fast-growing business stream in its own right.

Hallucinations not Visions

This encouragement to separating ourselves from the murky, complex nature of our present realities often ends in strategies being described post-hoc as resulting from hallucinations, not visions. The gap between what middle managers in organisations experience in the present and the idealized nature of the vision is often too great to be credible, increasing the likelihood of cynical conversations at the water-cooler.

William Gibson’s suggestion that “the future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed” suggests that we need to pay far more attention to opportunities and signals in the present, from both within and outside the organization.

Changing our focus to the present

Well, there are strategy processes that do indeed enable participants to both stay present and build a compelling and connected future. An example of such a process is Future Search (Weisbord & Janoff), which helps organization participants build a compelling future by paying sufficient attention to the opportunities in the present. It encourages participants to look at common ground to build a compelling organisation future. However, even if we don’t choose one of these approaches to building our strategy, we can all question whether we really are present enough when preparing for the future.

Take this gift I give you – it is the present

(from poem by Ian MacMillan)

The gift is the present

Dev Mookherjee & Sarah Beart

Bibliography

Gibson, W. (1999) “The Science in Science Fiction” on Talk of the Nation, NPR (30 November 1999, Timecode 11:55)

Gilbert, D. (2014) “The Psychology of your Future Self”, TED talk at TED2014, https://www.ted.com/talks/dan_gilbert_you_are_always_changing?language=en

Lewin, K. (1943). Defining the “Field at a Given Time.” Psychological Review, 50, 292–310

Lewis, D. (1976) “The Paradoxes of Time Travel.” American Philosophical Quarterly, 13:145-52.

Macmillan, I. Extract from a poem read on a BBC Radio 3 programme but not otherwise published. Permission provided by author to use the quote in this blog.

Santayana, G. (1942). The Philosophy of Santayana, Modern Library, Vol 224

Wason, Peter C. (1960), “On the failure to eliminate hypotheses in a conceptual task”, Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, Psychology Press, 12 (3): 129–40, doi:10.1080/17470216008416717, ISSN 1747-0226

Weisbord, M. & S. Janoff (2010). Future Search: Getting the Whole System in the Room for Vision, Commitment and Action. San Francisco: Berrett Kohler.