Design as an Organization Growth Process
26th January 2021

Design as an Organization Growth Process

“Consultants/helpers must recognize that ‘process’, i.e., how things are said and done, is as or more important than ‘content’, i.e., what is said and done.” – Edgar Schein

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Organization design is a significant growth process for an organization. Yet, many leaders believe it is a process best outsourced to large consulting organizations and their expert model. It’s an alluring belief, some would say fallacy, that carries with it a significant unrecognized opportunity cost. The position of this article is that outsourcing organization design and transformation inhibits the organizational characteristics leaders are desperate to promote. Open yourself to the idea that the process an organization follows to redesign itself is as important any technical design outcome. This is a critical insight if the benefits you seek from a redesign include:

benefits of a redesign

Build Systems Thinkers

We’ve all heard the parable of the blind men and the elephant. I’m touching the tail. You’re touching the ear. Each of us thinks we know the elephant. We’ve fallen into the pattern of system blindness. This describes the common situation where workers in one part of the system do not understand other, complementary parts of the same broader system. System blindness exists in your organization because it exists in all organizations.

It is predictable that among the members of a team convened to improve any substantive cross-boundary process, nobody will know the full process. Because of this, people blame each other for process errors, parts of the system export errors to other parts of the system, and data is not shared. System blindness and its undesirable outcomes is common whenever process cuts horizontally across a functionally designed organization.

Assembling members from disparate parts of your organization to participate in redesign lifts system blindness. The blind men see the full elephant. Conflict is replaced by understanding, cooperation, and jointly agreed remedies. This is a result of an organization doing its own design work. The question leaders must ask themselves is, “Who do I want to see the full elephant?” Is it your general managers? Is it members of your organization? Is it your consulting firm?

Create Commitment

Engaging your organization in redesign leads to internal commitment among members. The reasons are found in involvement, data, and dialogue. The assembly of a broad design team, from top leaders to front-line workers, and with representation from across organizational boundaries, produces involvement. Because people are working together in pursuit of a shared objective, people develop trust in each other and share valid data. The data about the good and the bad in an organization becomes a basis for effective, honest, and open dialogue. This means that the group, working as a collection of interdependent stakeholders, each with their own vantage point, collectively defines objectives and methods for achieving them. The agreed choice is not coerced or pre-determined, but freely made based on democratic principles.

The process of putting valid information into shared dialogue and making committed decisions is learnable and re-creatable. Its benefits transcend design work and spread throughout the organization. The outcome is higher performance, higher moral, and lower tension and reactivity. The question for leaders is, “Do I want this way of working for my organization? Is this the culture I want?”

Enhance Coordination

Your lateral organization makes your organization work. Most organizations depend on spontaneous, recurring, and informal interaction among members. For anyone familiar with Jay Galbraith’s work, you’ll recall that he places “informal, voluntary organization” as the foundation of decentralized decision making and cooperative action.

The process of participative design builds these informal, lateral networks within organizations. Each design participant becomes more well-connected in the network. They become more effective at sharing data and connecting those with organizational issues to solve with those who have relevant information and skill. The result is that your organizational network becomes tighter, more capable of transmitting information across the network, and more responsive to external change.

An additional benefit of the lateral organization is that it promotes effective and efficient decentralized decision making. There is not one leader reading this article who would not welcome fewer organizational decisions floating upward through the hierarchy for issues better resolved closer to the situation. The question for leaders is, “Do I want the benefits of an effective lateral organization?” Participative organization design can produce it for your organization.

Organization Design is a Growth Opportunity

The opportunity cost of asking an expert consultant to redesign your organization is the development of organizational capability and culture. The appeal of a market transaction that buys a more effective organization design is understandable. In many cases, what it really buys is a binder, dense with content and perfect page margins, that nobody knows how to implement, and nobody accepts with any intrinsic commitment. You cannot purchase the learning or development benefits found in doing the work of participative design.

Here is a small action you can take to test the messages in this article. Pick a relatively small process you’d like to improve that crosses organizational boundaries. Assemble members that participate in that process and come from the various participating boundaries. Find someone to facilitate group work. Watch for new relationships that form and strengthen among people who share a process but don’t know each other. Watch for new ownership and commitment that comes from people understanding and improving their own process. Watch the energy level rise as people collaborate to share their knowledge and fix problems they’ve known how to fix but nobody has given them the space to make it so.

“The people facing the problems are the best people to solve them; they just need the leadership and structure to enable them to do it.” – Gilmore Crosby

If you’re thinking about transforming your business, considering how sustainable the change will be is a decision many people don’t consider – but need to. Contact us to learn how OTM uses collaboration to design and implement sustainable transformation.

Dan Schmitz is a Consultant at ON THE MARK.

OTM is the leading global boutique organization design consultancy with offices in the USA and UK. With over 450 successful redesigns and operating model modernizations completed, OTM is owner of the industry’s most integrated, comprehensive and holistic organization design solution. OTM enables its clients to realize their future ambitions.

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