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Organization design blog

Leading design work

08/21/17  6:56 PM 

I'm writing the final chapter of my forthcoming book Organization Design: a practitioner's guide. I've got to the bit on business leaders and their role in design work, which I think calls on some specific skills which although useful in the 'day job' are not as essential as they are in taking a lead in design work. Here's a slightly shortened version of the section:

Leaders play a critical role in three ways in relation to organization design work: stating and explaining the 'why' of design or redesign, supporting people in making sense of the context that the re-design work is responding to, and telling the stories of how it is going.

There is no value in doing organization design work if the 'why' of doing it is not clear to people. Too frequently the 'why' is not obvious – if things are ticking along nicely then why change it, is a common attitude to proposed organization design work. 'Whys couched in terms like 'to be more adaptable', 'be fit for the future' or 'be more competitive' are not sufficient to convince people that the upheaval of redesigning is worth the effort. Nevertheless, it is that rather vague 'fit for the future' requirement that impels many organization redesigns.

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Observing and sense making

08/14/17  6:43 PM 

We were set a writing task last week to go out and observe, not participate, and then develop a short story from the observation. (I was on a creative writing course). That's a fairly open-ended task and we had to complete it within a couple of hours.

It reminded me of the start of most design projects I get involved in. One of the early steps is to find out what's going on in the client organisation, using various methods, and observation is often one of them.

Most design and change methodologies are rooted some form of 'current state assessment' involving observation – the language depends on the method or model. Think about the 'discovery', phase in appreciative inquiry, or the empathise stage in design thinking or the project conception of the project cycle or the awareness of the need for change in Prosci's change management model or the consulting cycle with an information gathering phase.

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Designing with stories

08/08/17  9:05 AM 

Story telling seemed to be the natural topic for this week's blog. Why?

First, because today (6 August) I've started a one-week residential creative writing course focused on short stories. It's got a daunting amount of homework and is described as 'intentionally rigorous'. I'll let you know how I got on with it.

Second, last week I was reviewing the book Design a Better Business which has a whole section about storytelling as integral to organization design work and offers a downloadable template + instructions on how to construct stories.

Third, also last week I started a new assignment and am listening to stories people tell about the organization and the piece of work that I am doing with them about why we need to change. Some people specifically said 'we need to be better at telling the story of why we have to change'.

I am a bit sceptical that stories consciously designed to be 'tools' can change organizations. Possibly they can help change organizations or contribute to changing organizations – depending on how you constructed them, but how would you know any changes were due to the stories being told, and can you design or contrive stories that work well alongside the naturally occurring sort that get told in organizations?

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Designing for emergence

07/31/17  7:52 PM 

I got a request last week 'to explore developing and delivering a Business Change function: how it might be structured, and its milestones and deliverables'. It came at the same point as the question, from Peter Murchland, 'can we or how can we design for emergence'?

At first glance, they seemed to be opposing notions. In the Donald Rumsfeld spectrum of 'There are known knowns, there are known unknowns, and there are unknown unknowns', business change typology seems to be more comfortable at the known knowns end, a kind of reductionist view of the work, and emergence typology at the unknown unknowns end a kind of holistic view of the world.

As I was musing on the two I remembered a picture I once had on my wall. It was a drawing by French illustrator Jean Olivier Heron, called 'Comment naissent les bateaux' (How boats are born). It showed a yawl gradually emerging through a sequence of drawings that started with a butterfly-winged mermaid hatching. (See it here).

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Digital ecosystems – any thoughts?

07/25/17  5:20 AM 

Jim sent me an email last week saying: 'I am doing a webinar on ecosystems and with all the hoopla on digital ecosystems in HBR recently I think there is a possible org design perspective on this.'

He went on to mention alliance management functions, ecosystems of the future, and centralized/decentralized models. Finishing with the challenge 'Any thoughts?' So, here goes:

Beginning with the 'eco'. Ecosystems has recently entered the common language of business – to such an extent that it's in the top three management buzzwords of 2016.

Before it was a business word it was an ecologist's word and in that literature, there are many definitions on what ecosystems 'are'. A simple definition, from National Geographic is: An ecosystem is a geographic area where plants, animals, and other organisms, as well as weather and landscape, work together to form a bubble of life. Ecosystems contain biotic or living, parts, as well as abiotic factors, or non-living parts. Every factor in an ecosystem depends on every other factor, either directly or indirectly.

More detailed ecosystem definitions include concepts of pattern formation, self-organization, coevolution and co-existence between organisms and their environments, interaction across multiple scales of space, time, and complexity, and feedback loops.

Similarly, there are various definitions of digital ecosystem. Gartner's is: 'A digital ecosystem is an interdependent group of enterprises, people and/or things that share standardized digital platforms for a mutually beneficial purpose (such as commercial gain, innovation or common interest). Digital ecosystems enable you to interact with customers, partners, adjacent industries -— even your competition.' This definition is closest to the business ecosystem discussed in an article on three types of economic ecosystems (business, innovation, and knowledge).

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Algorithmic organization design: let's not be greedy

07/19/17  5:26 AM 

This week I started reading Aurora, a sci-fi novel by Kim Stanley Robinson. I hadn't read anything he'd written before but I got intrigued when I read an interview with him in which he was talking about positive futures. His view is that 'the stories we tell have the power to shape our future'.

That struck me as relevant as we (more or less) confidently tell ourselves the story that if we (re)design the organization then we will get positive outcomes – otherwise why design or redesign?

In between reading Aurora, I am writing a chapter on evaluating organisation designs for my forthcoming book. So, I'm asking myself how do we know what our design work is bringing, has brought, or will bring, in terms of positive futures such as efficiency gains, quality improvements, problems solved, or opportunities seized. Can we actually ascribe changes in any metrics we are tracking to something we've done in our design work?

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    Naomi Stanford
  • Naomi Stanford is an author, teacher,
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