To Speed Up, You Must Slow Down - the Organization Design Paradox

By Richard Lucas


Today’s leaders increasingly need to adjust their strategy in ‘real time’. This can create mis-alignment throughout their organization, because such rapid or repeated change calls into question the way teams are structured, how roles are defined, how performance and governance is enabled and measured, and whether previously successful behaviours will be right for a new reality.


At Orgdesign Works, we guide you to overcome these challenges and accelerate your organization design efforts, by building capability as you design, and helping you


implement from day 1.


With experience of over 100 organization design projects, we know that to achieve this acceleration, leaders must resist the urge to skip steps in the design process in the race to finish the project. If you know that it’s not just about organization structure and recognize a ‘whole system’ view of the design, you might be worried that this will excessively lengthen the design process. Even when you understand that this will give you more chance of success, there may be external pressure from key stakeholders (including yourself) to speed up. Nevertheless, our advice is to resist!


The measure of both speed and success in an organization design effort is not ‘time to design’, but ‘time to implement’.


Many large organization design efforts see benefits around one year from the start of the design process. In the haste to achieve these benefits, some project teams fail to address one or more of three ‘accelerators’ because they wrongly assume this will slow them down:


1. Strategic clarity


2. Wide and deep engagement


3. Testing and iteration in the field


Four brief case studies illustrate this:



Now let’s take a brief look at each of these accelerators.


Strategic Clarity


You might have heard that organization follows strategy. For us, this maxim is often a starting point for conversations with clients about organization design. Without a clear strategy the organization design is really only driven by e.g. vague notions of ‘best practice’, a search for ‘optimum’ spans and layers, by what competitors are doing, or a particular leader’s gut feeling or past experience.


Here is a set of questions that can help you prepare for an organization design effort:


  • Is your strategy clear, does it address customers, markets and the critical capabilities you need to compete?
  • Is it written down, shared and understood throughout the organization, and especially within your top team? Would they all articulate it the same way?
  • How does your organization today enable or limit you to deliver it?
  • What changes to business or operating model are implied? What options could you consider?
  • What design principles arise from the strategy?


Getting clarity on strategy requires an investment of time and effort that could take several months and carefully crafted leadership interventions.


However, there are significant risks of embarking on an organization design process without a clear and aligned strategy.


You could end up with multiple changes of direction, no underlying rationale, and a design without a coherent story and support. At best, these risks will slow down the process, at worst, they will increase the chance of failure. The advantages of investing effort to get this right include leadership alignment, confidence in the design and much less re-work.


Wide and Deep Engagement


“People protect what they build '' is certainly true in our experience. Engagement starts when your team is getting to grips with strategic clarity. A great way to gather intelligence and foster engagement at an early stage is to ask people about what is happening in the organization today, what needs to be changed, and what must be kept. The engagement builds through your selection of design teams and pilot areas of the business where designs can be tested and iterated.


People at the front line of your business really know how things work - engage them in figuring out how to make things better.


The best leaders we have worked with:


  • Put great people onto the design teams, with diverse backgrounds and from different parts of the organization, and trust them to build a design to deliver the strategy.
  • Have the courage to open the design process to testing from the wider organization.


This level of engagement requires courage and effort, not least because leaders feel the responsibility to come up with a clear solution before communicating that change is needed.


However, as counter intuitive as it may feel, your biggest impact as a leader should be in facilitating broad and deep engagement.


The benefits of doing this are greater understanding, trust, and ownership of the design, which leads to speed of implementation. We know from experience that even when people are worried about their jobs, participation in the process pays dividends as you enter more formal consultation procedures. And best of all,


broad and deep engagement leads to a stronger, more resilient, design.


Testing and Iteration


As you communicate with clear messages and share a sense of direction, it is important to enable people to build, test and iterate the design as part of the process. Techniques such as design thinking, customer journeys, human-centred design etc., are valuable not only to the design itself, but also in building the capability of your people and helping them to deploy new skills and critical thinking. We use scenario testing with our clients, which is great when people from different parts of the organization select and test the scenarios. Pilot testing with teams that feel safe to try, fail, learn and iterate without negative consequences, is a powerful method of reducing risk in high stakes change situations.


As a leader, ask yourself, are you willing to take the design off the desktop and into the field to test and further develop your ideas?




When you have a great strategy, invest in a well-considered, open and comprehensive design process to ensure that your future organization will provide direction, momentum and ultimately high performance. Avoid a closed-door design process because it will lack diverse insight and meet resistance in implementation.


If you have an idea about how you want to change the organization, then create opportunities to scenario test broadly and pilot test with a willingness to learn and adapt the proposal.


However elegant the design, it is only implementable after you have tested it with multiple situations and stakeholders.


This is how you will build capability as you design, and if you do it well, your implementation will already be underway before you finalize your design.


If you are considering changing your organization design, contact us for a conversation

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