Organizational Design: 5 Lessons to Take from ‘’The Greatest Night in Pop’’ - ON THE MARK
29th May 2024

Organizational Design: 5 Lessons to Take from ‘’The Greatest Night in Pop’’

There is a lot of variation in the organizational design space. This diversity ranges from theoretical schools of thought and approaches to organizational design, to the role of the designer. For this blog, we’ll unpack the latter in more detail, drawing lessons from a documentary. Depending on different client-consultant relationships, the org designer can assume different roles: doctor-patient, expert, and process consultant (K. Lee, 20021). Understanding the differentiation of these roles influences the organizational design approach. In today’s complex reality, there is no single pure approach. With that in mind, this blog focuses on lessons for org designers primarily adopting the process consultant role.

Gran Canaria airport and a handful of notes to review, as I’ve just left a spiritual silence retreat surrounded by massive cacti and banana trees. I was contemplating what to read or do on the flight back to London. I normally enjoy reading books or editing my podcast episodes on a flight. This time, I felt like watching a film. A friend recommended “The Greatest Night in Pop” because “I had to cry twice, it’s so beautiful,” he said. At that point, I couldn’t find anything I wanted to watch, so I went with his recommendation. Halfway through, the film made me realize it has some rich lessons for org designers working from a process consultation approach and regularly facilitating design work in workshops. Here are five lessons I identified. 

But first, what is this documentary really about? On a January night in 1985, the biggest music stars gathered to record the iconic and impactful song “We Are The World.” The purpose of the documentary is to show what happened behind the scenes to achieve the outcome of this historical song. It started with singer, actor, and civil rights activist Harry Belafonte’s deep sense of initiating something to address extreme poverty in the Horn of Africa.

The Whole is Greater Than the Sum of Its Parts in Organizational Design

Belafonte’s compassion was channeled into making this project bigger than himself, with the purpose of raising awareness and funds for the cause. Problem-solving or creating something with a small group is far easier than involving significantly more people. Connecting all those individual parts contributing to the same purpose can form richer outcomes. This is exactly what happens in organizations when they decide to include a diagonal representation of their organization to rethink their operations and imagine an improved future in practical terms. 

As an individual leader or an executive leadership team, it may feel daunting to include 30-40% of your organization in such engagements. It requires a lot of work and can be exhausting to hear different points of view and find the silver lining. But, the outcome of all those different parts can be exactly what the organization needed to tackle its challenges or attain its objectives. Back to Harry Belafonte: including all these different individuals on a single night was directly linked to a clear purpose. Gathering a large group of people, who individually have their own talents and skills, was balanced with recognition and encouragement of channeling those individual parts to form a whole.

Leaving Your Ego at the Door for True Collaboration

Although the ego provides continuity and consistency with behaviors and points of reference related to past events, it can also block true vulnerability and connection. In this documentary, the purpose was so clear that losing sight of the bigger picture could cause people to focus on themselves. This is especially true for superstars who might see themselves as infallible and crave attention, thus growing their ego. 

Belafonte put a sign at the door that said, “Check Your Ego at the Door.” This was followed by an introduction outlining the big picture and emphasizing that “the collective power of artists can be very impactful. If we all put our egos aside in the service of people in the world who are less fortunate, we are truly one people in need of each other.” 

This is also true in organizational design workshops. Nobody cares about someone’s job title, salary, or direct reports. The bigger purpose of the organization doesn’t care either, and neither should anyone in the room. Setting that expectation from the very beginning is critical, and as process consultant org designers, this can be facilitated by setting ground rules/principles during the first workshop. Having participants develop those ground rules/principles is powerful because it comes from the people themselves. In almost every org design project I’ve done, the design team participants would come up with something like keeping the organization’s interests at heart – not their own. This is important level-setting stuff.

Two Sides of the Same Coin: Challenge and Reward of Getting People in a Room

The logistics of getting a group of people together with a clear objective and method of engagement requires a lot of work. The notion of showing up at an organizational design workshop and just following the principle of “emergent design” isn’t sustainable. This documentary showed how much planning was required to get all these superstars in one studio in Los Angeles after an already busy evening at an American awards show in the city. 

Consider all the people in your (customer) organization who are back-to-back in meetings all week and find just two hours for a session to be a challenge – let alone two days for a workshop. This is the reality for many process org designers: how to convince the customer of the importance of getting people in a room? 

The film showed the strength of getting different people to reach out to those they know – a degree of separation, sort of. And then it worked out, with ecstatic energy vibrating through the studio. I could feel that energy from a phone screen, 39 years after the event. When it was all over and dawn reached the city of angels, something interesting happened: Diana Ross teared up because she didn’t want the event to be over. As process org designers, our efforts may sometimes seem wasted in trying to convince customers of why it is important to be in the room for a significant amount of time with a certain number of people. The documentary reminded me to trust the process more. Bringing people together to truly collaborate will inject energy that people will naturally pull for – even if the design itself can be challenging. Thanks, Diana.

Reading the Behavior in the Room is a Superpower

All night long, Lionel Richie was reading the room (ironically, given his hit “All Night Long”). He identified when artists needed to focus, take a break, or have a midnight snack, and most importantly, he recognized when creative differences needed to be overcome. He was the glue of the room. Lionel would spot dynamics and wasn’t uncomfortable addressing them in service of the group. Reading the room is essential but often overlooked for different reasons. 

Personally, when I haven’t managed to read the room well enough, it usually has to do with me pushing the group to get to where I think they should be by a certain point in time. This is me trying to “control” an outcome by sticking to a well-thought-through plan. But very often, things don’t go to plan, and you need to adapt and see what the group needs and is pulling for. My reflection is that it requires a lot of data gathering – constantly scanning the room and processing the data to decide the next best course of (non-)intervention. 

Lionel wasn’t alone in that. Bob Dylan struggled to sing his solo lines several times. This continued until Stevie Wonder impersonated Dylan’s lines. After that, another intervention took place to clear the room and give Dylan space to sing his lines.

Organizational Design Wisdom: People Support What They Helped to Create

Naturally, we don’t want to be left out and just informed afterward. This constant tension feeds into many organizations getting change managers to help “change” people in the organization. It takes a lot of effort because when people are not included in a process, they have questions, concerns, and feel emotionally left out. This was beautifully demonstrated halfway through the documentary when Stevie Wonder was shocked that the song had already been written. This happened even though several attempts were made to include him in the writing process. This happens in org design contexts all the time. Inviting people to a workshop, who then decline the invite, perhaps join halfway through, and realize how much progress has been made without them being involved or consulted. 

Another example was Waylon Jennings not agreeing with a suggestion to sing some lines in Swahili. Jennings immediately dropped out and left the studio. Given some patience and trust in the group process, Jennings would have found out that not long after he left, the group corrected itself as they realized that no one speaks Swahili in that part of Africa the song was made for in the first place. This dynamic happens a lot in organizational design processes, where design team members cannot reconcile their views with what the group wants to design. Often, the design process is iterative, and the first prototype is not set in stone. 

Regardless of how dominant someone is in the room, eventually, the group will likely support what benefits the wider purpose. The process to get there might be messy, with different perspectives and suggestions. Eventually, the outcome will have gone through different checks and balances – with commitment because people support what they helped to create (more on this, check out this podcast episode). 

In conclusion, the documentary is a humbling and beautiful event to watch, with hidden gem lessons for organizational design and beyond. Whether we’re in a boardroom, a conference room for a workshop, or a recording studio: we’re only human. Check your ego at the door.

Reach out to us to get started! 


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