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?


This question cropped up recently in the midst of some work with a senior team. They are leading an organisation going through significant change; context and market are shifting, there is a new political environment, internal role changes, constrained finances and people at the top are moving on. There is a good deal of uncertainty about what all this will mean, and what good leading looks like.

The small senior team have been tight knit. They are understandably keen to protect their people from the politics, the uncertainty and the heavy demands. At times the team can barely keep pace with what’s required, despite being enormously bright people who work long hours.

But their people are demanding NOT to be completely protected, to know more about what’s happening and to be allowed to contribute. They have their own links into the context, albeit at a more junior level, and are picking up hints of what’s going on. Sometimes they hear more from outsiders than they do from their own bosses. They feel frustrated and held back – and yet the senior team don’t want to give the impression that things are out of control or “unravelling” as one of them put it.

This put me in mind of hamsters. My daughter’s friend was one of the first in her primary school class to have a hamster as a pet. One morning, not all that long after the marvellous arrival, her mother discovered it dead in its cage.  Fearing the upset it would cause, her Mum replaced it the same day with a near-identical one from the petshop. And when the same thing happened again a few months later, she repeated the distress-saving manoeuvre. No one said a word, and the parents breathed sighs of relief that upset had been averted.

A few weeks on, the daughter warned another school friend who was just about to get her own hamster that they were in the habit of dying; in fact her mother had already had to replace two. “She thinks I don’t know, and I don’t really like to upset her by mentioning it”.

Like the little girl, people tend to be quite smart about what’s really going on. But they don’t want to make life more difficult for their own senior people by raising difficult or emotional subjects. People end up protecting each other from the discomfort of loss, of not knowing, or of not being able to control what happens. At the same time, they can end up complaining about each other. How often do you hear “They never tell us the truth” or  “They just won’t step up to the responsibility”?

With this senior team, we identified a few potential “dead hamster” topics; things where people at many levels already have some insight into what’s going on, where it’s uncomfortable to admit just how much is still uncertain, and where no one can predict or control what happens next. The senior group then had a rather thoughtful conversation with their people; the knowns and unknowns, some of the intriguing possibilities, what looks like staying the same as well as what is likely to change. They are finding a way of leading, and allowing their people to contribute.

Do you have any “dead hamsters”?

departed hamster