It is important to us that we learn with our clients and colleagues. Every year we undertake topical research, sharing our insights to give practical recommendations for leading and organising.
As research-informed practitioners, with interests in many fields – from ecology and anthropology to relational psychology and sociology, we explore what is happening in our client work from different perspectives. What we hear and learn from leaders across organisations informs our thinking, our research, and most importantly our practice. To date we have published a number of research reports on areas such as Strategy, Transformation, Designing Organisations, Culture Change, and Executive Teams.
This research was initially framed as an inquiry into how organisations engage with strategy and how it shows up in the day-to-day realities of organisational practice and routines. The scoping process started in early 2022 when the continuing impact of the recent pandemic was still in everyone’s consciousness.
Going into these conversations, we tried not to carry too many assumptions about how organisations should go about doing strategy or what it means to strategise. Indeed, we even avoided being explicit about what strategy work does or does not include. However, we noticed that clients used a range of terminology with some referring only to a formulation phase whilst others talked about a flow of work (a process) that included formulation, engagement, and delivery, with ongoing learning and iteration.
We became particularly interested in the metaphors and imagery that people held in mind. It became clear that their mental models seemed fundamental to how they sought to engage others in strategising. We noticed, too, a variety of internal and external factors such as cultural and external contexts that led to a default to well-established routines and behaviours.
What we didn’t expect was that the centrality of ‘purpose’ would become so prominent: a rich thread emerging as the research process evolved. It was certainly not where we started nor where we thought we would end up.
So, given all of this we wondered:
– How are leaders approaching strategy in this increasingly unpredictable world?
– What are they learning from the experience that helps them to continue to adapt and evolve their approach?
– What does this mean for engaging people in the process of strategy development?
In a turbulent and changeable world, organisations need to adapt how they organise if they are to be healthy and successful. Organisation design has therefore become an increasingly critical activity.
The design process is often difficult and challenging for those leading it and those affected by the outcomes. In many cases, leaders, employees, or both, are left disappointed because their hopes and aspirations are not realised.
This research report explores the practical realities and challenges of organisation design. Its underlying aim is to understand how to develop a new design and transition into new ways of working. Our intention has been to develop practical insights grounded in the experience of those who lead or support these kind of change efforts.
We started the research at the beginning of 2020, in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. We interviewed twenty-five leaders and change agents about their experience of either leading or facilitating a redesign of an organisation. This was supplemented by inquiry into, and reflection on, our organisation design work with our clients, including a two-day inquiry in January 2020, and a review of concepts, frameworks and theories. We engaged both European and UK-based private sector organisations and UK-based public sector organisations and charities. A number of the private sector organisations, whilst headquartered in Europe, have global operations. Section 9 provides further detail about the range of sectors and types of roles of those interviewed.
While organisation design is increasingly iterative, most people thought about design in key phases: set-up and planning, the process of designing, and implementation and transition. They also highlighted the importance of the connections between these phases.
We have therefore chosen to organise this report into four sections. The first focusses on the context for organisation design and how design processes usually start. In the second, we explore the design process itself and the tensions and trade-offs that surface; while the third highlights the risks and pitfalls involved in implementation and transition. Finally, the last section is concerned with the trials and tribulations that come with taking a participative approach to designing. This includes our recommendations for leaders and practitioners.
Organisations have become more serious than ever about culture. Shifting changes in societal values, globalisation, rapid technological innovation and the climate emergency raise fundamental questions about the role, nature and form of organisations. Yet, despite their efforts, many organisations continue to grapple with the challenge of changing their culture to transform what they do and how they do it. In recent years, we have witnessed a series of crises and major disruptions in banking, retail, health, international aid, automotive and other sectors. All of these high-profile cases and others could be understood as problems of cultural adaptation leading to the decline, collapse or reputational damage of the institution involved.
Almost all of our clients have in recent times been engaged in attempts to develop or change their culture. They tell us how tricky, demanding and ultimately disappointing these types of projects can be. To understand these challenges, we have been researching to find out more about what happens in reality.
This report summarizes how different organisations have been attempting to change or develop their culture. It offers practical insights grounded in the experience of those who lead or support these kind of change efforts.
What follows are stories of what has been tried for better or for worse. Nobody has definitive answers but by looking at what has been learned across a critical mass of organisations, we hope this report can give some pointers for leaders and practitioners about where and how to start, what to focus on and what to avoid.
The language of transformation has become commonplace in organisations. In our consulting work, we increasingly see and hear about attempts to transform organisations. Transformations are, however difficult and challenging endeavours and the available evidence indicates that success rates are low. A paper in the Sloan Management Review in 2018, for instance, estimates that only about 25% succeed.
The purpose of this research has been to investigate the practice of organisation transformation and to develop practical insights that are grounded in the experience of those who are leading or doing transformation work.
What do we mean by transformation?
For us, organisation transformation involves most or all of the following characteristics:
– Radical, discontinuous or fundamental in nature
– Change in the organisation’s form and / or function
– Comprehensive, affecting everyone and all parts of an organisation
– Enduring over time (i.e. not temporary)
A central finding from our research is that the term “transformation” has different and conflicting meanings.
This can lead to:– Ambiguities about expectations, processes and outcomes
– Different interpretations about what is necessary and what needs to be done
– Confusion and misunderstandings between stakeholders
– Unrealistic expectations or disappointments
– Resistance and opposition to the transformation.
The framing of the transformation and the narrative that describes its form and why it is necessary is critical to guiding and mobilizing action. As we heard more about transformation efforts we became convinced that Transformations happen because a critical mass of people care deeply about re-inventing the organisation. The level of emotional investment of employees therefore influences the likelihood that a transformation effort will achieve its aims.
The call for leadership has arguably never been greater in organisations and across society. To a degree, this reflects an irrational devotion to the personality and capabilities of leaders. All the attention is then placed on the CEO and other prominent individuals in an organisation. And much of the success or failings of their enterprises are attributed to what they do or do not do. Whilst there is no doubt that they play a critical role, our observation is that to transform organisations and social systems, collective leadership is required to integrate perspectives, share responsibility and mobilise people.
Given the above, perhaps unsurprisingly, there has been very little research into executive teams. Research has exclusively focused on the attributes and styles of individual leaders, not leadership teams. From this position, we see a need to get beneath the surface of the experience of executive teams and understand how they can be supported. We have endeavoured to understand and appreciate the experience of team members.
We carried out this inquiry during the pandemic and our findings reflect both the unique challenges that leadership teams experienced during this period as well as revealing more universal experiences that come with the role of being the executive.
The purpose of this research therefore has been to understand the experience of executive teams in leading their organisations and, in doing so, to discover how they make a difference and have a meaningful impact.
The teams we studied headed entire organisations or major business units. We have taken a systemic position in trying to understand their experiences; looking at the team from the outside-in to explore how environmental dynamics, such as political and operational pressures, shape the team’s dynamics and emotional life; and looking from the inside-out to understand how the team’s dynamics shape their influence and impact on their environment.