What I’ve Learned in the Last Year about Organization Design

By Richard Lucas


I’m not the first (and won’t be the last) person to point out that we’ve just been through a dramatic if not seismic period of disruption across pretty much every sector of society and the economy.


We are undergoing regular and repeated ‘shocks’ caused by global pandemic, climate emergency, extreme weather events, protest and political fracture. This has been particularly acute over the last 12 months and it seems any notion of ‘normal’ will be a pipe dream for some time to come.


It is also true that much of this provides us with opportunity. From accelerating the drive to net-zero, to healing divisions and inequalities in our societies, our companies remain a potential force for good, and those of us working in the field of organization design have an increasingly important part to play in helping them be the best they can be.


The point of this post is not to try and plot a path through all of this (it’s too complex), or deliver a ‘silver bullet’ (they don’t exist). It is merely to suggest three things I’ve learned that I believe are now non-negotiable for the humble organisation design practitioner, like you and me.


1. Design for resilience


Well, if 2020 (and so far, 2021) has shown us anything at all, it’s that resilience is critical to an organization’s prosperity and even survival. I’m talking here not about a resilient mindset for leaders, although that too is important, but about organizational resilience. The resilience that is inherent in our whole organizational ‘system’ that allows you to bounce back from adversity, shocks or major disruption.


If organization design is about anything at all, then it is surely about creating the conditions for an organization to develop the capabilities it needs to be successful. What this last year has shown us more clearly than ever is


certain capabilities enable you to be more resilient.


One way in which we’ve seen organizations adapt, even those for whom the pandemic or Brexit presents an existential crisis, is the ability to pivot quickly to open up new channels for customers, to break into new markets, develop new products and services and so on.


This is all about innovation whether at a small scale for a restaurant moving to take-away, delivery and ‘at home’ services enabling them to stay afloat, to larger scale innovation in vaccine development we have seen some extraordinary examples.


It’s not just about response to the pandemic though, the accelerated drive to net-zero has seen the dramatic investment from oil and gas majors such as BP in the switch to offshore renewable energy. It has seen solar powered de-salination, the first commercial-scale hydrogen passenger plane, Nokia and Vodafone developing IoT capabilities for smart farming and forestry, and so on.


This is all about horizon scanning, and the capability to rapidly assess customer, market and technology trends and data to inform strategic decision making.


Supply chains have been severely tested of course through the pandemic, and through political issues such as Brexit. We’ve just also seen 10% of the world’s trade in goods held up in the Suez Canal by a 400-metre container ship run aground. Who’d have thought it? Will this prompt a move to more local supply chains? It’s already happening and will continue, and importantly organizations are putting supply chain strategy and capability higher up the list of priorities.


These are not the only capabilities that drive resilience, we could mention resource management, management of reputational risk, community engagement and so on.


What is imperative is that as practitioners we build resilience and its supporting capabilities into our organization design principles.


2. Design for connectivity


Connectivity has always been the life blood of any company. This is evidently true for relationships with customers, suppliers, communities and shareholders. However, the rapid shift to remote working at the start of the pandemic and the emergence of hybrid working as a new imperative, has brought to the forre the issue of


connectivity within and between teams.


Many if not most companies have addressed the technology challenge through scaling up existing collaboration platforms or moving to new ones, making working from home, or indeed from anywhere a viable option for some people, but not for all. The bigger challenge is now in developing new, connected ways of working that enable people and teams to deliver their best whether working remotely or in the office or a combination of both.


What I have come to learn over the last year (and “why did you not know this before” I hear you ask?) is that as organization design practitioners we have an increasing role to play in the design of ‘how work gets done’.


Most of us already take a whole system approach to designing organizations,


however it’s becoming clear that our remit needs to move also into the realm of what work gets done, by whom, how and where, and with what purpose, to help teams make sense of how to work effectively in a hybrid world.


A recent peer group discussion we hosted with a group of international OD and HR leaders from different sectors cemented this learning for me. All of the companies that attended are taking active steps to address the issue of how to design better ways of working for a hybrid world.


From setting a positive tone at the top and enabling leaders to lead differently, to actively addressing how top-level policy translates into a local context, these companies are grasping this as an opportunity for better design.


One conclusion we drew was that there is no one size to fit all. Work can be synchronous or asynchronous, collaborative or individual, transactional or creative, and individuals have different circumstances and preferences.


Teams will benefit from active facilitation to find the solutions that work for them and as organization design practitioners we must build this into our plans.


3. Design for inclusion


I’ll be brief here, because if I need to explain why this is non-negotiable then we probably won’t be friends. We know that truly diverse organizations have the strongest chance of sustaining success and attracting great talent. We know that diverse teams create better solutions for customers. We also know that through inclusion we can create greater equity and diversity.


All well and good, and easy to say, but we know we have a long way to go. In many ways we are actually regressing.


The pandemic has exposed and arguably created greater inequality of race and gender, and for people with disabilities.


As organization design practitioners and consultants, we most often occupy a privileged position with access to leaders, to data, and to decision making about future organizations. We must insist that the organization design process in our companies and our clients brings in truly diverse perspectives and voices into the mix. We must insist that policy, process, structure and role design are tested to ensure they work for a diverse workforce.


We must help to foster a culture of inclusion and not back down if this is resisted.


Thanks for reading!


While you are here, here’s a quick preview of the next post…


We’ve seen for some time, and especially in the last year, that leaders are increasingly needing to adjust their strategy in ‘real time’. This creates potential mis-alignment throughout their organization, because such rapid or repeated change calls in to question the way teams are structured, how roles are defined, how performance and governance is enabled and measured, and whether the behaviours that have been successful in the past, are right for a new reality.


At Orgdesign Works, we believe there is a way in which leaders can address this, and accelerate their organization design efforts, building capability from day 1, and an inherently ‘living’ design as an outcome.


Accelerating Organization Design will be the subject of the next post…bet you can’t wait?!


If you’d like to be informed when it’s published, email us at info@orgdesignworks.com

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