Reflections from the 2018 Organization Design Forum Annual Conference - ON THE MARK Reflections from the 2018 Organization Design Forum Annual Conference - ON THE MARK
3rd May 2018 Admin

Reflections from the 2018 Organization Design Forum Annual Conference

ON THE MARK Content Manager & Consultant, Stuart Wigham, attended the 2018 ODF Annual Conference in April. Looking back on the 3 day conference, Stuart reflects on the plenary speakers, peer workshops, and the pre-conference workshop,  “Organization Design Premier: Theory and Practice” that he had the pleasure to lead.


stuart wingham

This month the Organization Design Forum (ODF) held its annual conference. It was sold out, surprisingly so, I’d never heard of Ann Arbor let alone considered it somewhere to visit for business. However, between the marketing efforts and the sponsorship coverage (including Sponsorship from OTM), the conference attracted about 120 people, 50% of whom had never experienced an ODF conference before. FYI before I continue, Ann Arbor is a lovely destination irrespective of your motivation for visiting, so thank you to the planning committee for taking us there.

The basic format of the conference has changed little in the last few years and seems to work for the participants reasonably well, it was in part a traditional small conference with invited speakers alongside an ‘open space’ style format called the ‘Bazaar’.

Pre-Conference Classes

I had the pleasure, along with Tom Jasinski, of delivering the “Organization Design Primer: Theory and Practice” class. The design borrowed much content from the sister ODF in Europe, EODF, and walked the participants through the basic underpinning theories of OD, the time line of practice and theory, and what was happening in the world at key points in time.

In the afternoon, participants got the chance to work on case studies using some of the models and learning from the morning. For me what was great was that we had experienced practitioners and leaders in the room refreshing their own skills alongside newer people who had insights that we had maybe not considered before. We received personal thanks from the participants and positive feedback all round, which as a presenter you’re always grateful for.

In the room next door to us Jeff Tritt, former ODF board member, was taking his participants through “Experience Design, Shaping Organization Design”, essentially designing from a customer-centric viewpoint. Something that we’ve written about before at OTM. Personally, I’d have liked to have been on this course because it did sound interesting, but I had to keep Tom company. I can’t say firsthand what it was like, but I heard good things from a number of people that attended the course, so again, the participants appeared to have gained much value from the session, bravo Jeff!

odf 2018

Main Conference

For me, the most inspiring conference speaker was Richard Sheridan, whose topic “Build a Workplace People Love – Just add Joy” was both intriguing and unusual, to say the least. The story he told was about the underlying motivation for being in work and how, during his early career his joy slowly ebbed away as he progressed up the corporate ladder. One day he decided to leave that world and start his own company (Menlo Innovations) with an expressed design criteria centered on the happiness of workers or ‘joy’. Of course, we can all create visions, missions, and criteria that say nice words, but to design a successful company that embeds such ideals as part of the fabric of the organization is a lofty ambition and takes dedication and focus to achieve.

Richard works in the software development world, from what I understand. This work is heavily nested in project management. He identified that there appears to be a pendulum of either chaos, or project management, or bureaucracy, with companies finding difficulties achieving balance. What he wanted to achieve, and argues that he did, was a structured workplace around projects which had joy at the centre. I thought his presentation and way organizing was fascinating, if you looked through the lenses of regular business analysis or lean-six sigma methods then you would highlight a lot of waste in the system.

The Menlo system itself is based around the idea of constant pairing of workers together working on projects, which switch out periodically so that there is a constant flow of workers working with different people. To be fair it was a difficult concept to get your head around and even when I went on the tour to their office space I struggled to work out what all the paper on the walls meant and how it translated into a working project management arrangement.

In addition, I felt that some of the narrative was contradictory in places, for example, their pay system was completely transparent (thumbs up I hear you say), but I counted 18 levels essentially across four main roles with a narrative from the tour guides about everyone being equal (sounded a bit ‘Animal Farm’ to me – we’re all equal but some are more equal than others…). It left me wondering why this was needed given how small they are and how this was actually managed given that Forbes quotes the number of employees at around 43 as of 2017.

However, Menlo Innovations is extremely successful as a small company. The question of how scalable it is was brought up by Mark from OTM. I am not entirely sure we got much of an answer, and to be fair, they are what they are, they’re not geographically dispersed nor are they multi-service driven or have lots of product lines to manage. In addition, by design, the people must be present in the office to do work, it is not a virtual-friendly design, deliberately so.

On the tour they talked about making adjustments regarding bringing children into the workplace, there are already dogs wandering around, which is fun when you’re on the tour, and that works fine for them. But for me there remained questions about virtual working and scalability, its 2018, not 1918… Anyway, I’ve bought the book, so I’ll learn more from that and no doubt what lessons can be gained from Menlo. Not everything is practical but bringing joy into the workplace as a specific design criteria for me that has some merit, who doesn’t want more joy in their working lives?

So, what else caught my attention?

The other presentation that caught my eye was from the internal OD team at Whirlpool. Most people reading this will have used one of their products at some point in their lives. The basic story is one of an historic company, who are now known for longevity and durability of their products (although have an interesting history with innovation themselves in terms of being the first at many things). As the presenters rightly pointed out, people generally buy such products under duress – e.g. when an existing washing machine breakdown. Unless you’re in the bottom end of the market where they’re likely to break more frequently then the chances are that it’s a long time before your customers repeats a purchase with you.

Today Whirlpool have a good global coverage and domination of the market owning many familiar brands. However, they’ve suddenly found themselves with new competitors with connectivity inbuilt as part of the product design. For example, Samsung have TV’s, Mobile Phones, Smart Watches, and pretty much any home device/machine that one might need. The biggest issue Whirlpool appeared to be facing was data and how companies are using data to respond quickly to consumer demand. The most obvious example in this space is the ‘smart’ fridge that knows when you’re going to run out of milk and therefore reorders it in time. Whirlpool seemed to me to be caught in a perfect storm of new aggressive competition and new technology, the latter is clearly not currently their competitive advantage (or going be in the future in my opinion).

The presenters addressed the issues they faced through presentation, discussions and idea cultivation from the audience. This was most enjoyable and allowed us to consider how we might help them meet their design challenge. The challenge was, to organize for innovation as a criteria that would run through the company. There was already a concept design in terms of how they were planning (or had already done, I wasn’t sure) to modularize their existing product offerings from a manufacturing standpoint, similar to a car company’s single platform design for multiple models. It appeared to be a logical approach for a manufacturer with lots of brands and products doing similar things, from a supply, logistics and maintenance point of view.

There were lots of great discussions, a chap from Spotify drew the conceptual innovation model they use, as did someone from Caterpillar. Both were useful additions, someone highlighted 10 Types of Innovation which is an interesting read. However, for me the elephant in the room which the Spotify diagram brought out, was that they were already so far behind in terms of the ability to capture customer data that it was a pointless exercise attempting to replicate the new market entries. Unless, of course, they were going to buy a company who already have large datasets that could be leveraged, which is not a cheap option: Data is the new currency.

The problem isn’t designing in a way that collects data, that’s becoming the norm in lots of things we buy, the issue is one of connectivity. The Samsungs of the world are already so far out in front in this space, they have already leveraged the data from their Smart TV’s, Smart Watches, Washing Machines, Fridges and, critically, Mobile phones to such an extent that their ability to be customer responsive and to turn on a dime as the market shifts is probably unparalleled at the moment. It’s one risk the Apples of the world take, if they lose brand identity for some reason, then trouble can mount quickly because their range of products is very small (although having $285billion in the bank is probably a reasonable cushion…).

I am not sure if innovation was really the issue that needed to be addressed for Whirlpool as such, certainly the marketing that was part of the presentation left me scratching my head as to what the company was looking to achieve other than to have a video that appealed to Heterosexual males – although I am not entirely convinced you can really understand what was being sold as a result. The issue at hand is HOW they might create connectivity of their products and gather data.

The direction of the market has been set and already been disrupted through others already innovating in the space. They need to skirt around the issue of not having a current data bank and buy one or partner with someone who has one (Google or maybe Amazon), and build Bluetooth connectivity (or whatever is the next version of this) into their machines and an App etc. Maybe then, they can make the front end of those machines look as flashy and enticing to the customer without trying to compete in a way that will drain resources like a sinkhole without any idea of the ROI. With that said, I thought the presenters did a great job of sharing a very difficult problem they faced, and it was nice to be involved in a way that might have been useful to them.

Final thought

Of course, the conference had way way more going on than that which I’ve just outlined, but I wanted to highlight two really interesting design issues of the day. As always, it is a great conference, the conference planning committee did a great job as well as the conference Lead and Co-Lead Diana Larsen and Rick Hardin. Lastly, I have to say a big thank you to Tanya who manages everything, seemingly effortlessly, behind the scenes. OTM is pleased and honored to have sponsored and made our contributions.

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading my reflections and, if you’re in the Organization Design world and want to attend another great conference, I can certainly recommend EODF in Budapest 19th – 20th October, ironically given that I finished this blog talking about is the theme is Connectivity, Platforms and Digitalisation!


Stuart Wigham is Content Manager & Consultant at ON THE MARK. In business for 28 years, OTM is a global leader in collaborative organization design and business transformation. We have a passion for collaborative business transformation that sits at the heart of OTM, supported by pragmatism, systems thinking, and belief in people.

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