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Helen Charles-Edwards

Stone & River

Head of Organisation Development

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Organisation design: it’s time to disrupt our approaches


Today, organisations are subject to unprecedented levels of fast-paced change driven by external as well as internal forces, often unpredictable. This scale of change throws into question the merits of the usual intensely unsettling and time-consuming approaches to organisation design.

Our view is that when it comes to organisation design, these traditional methodologies no longer provide the answers on how to build flexible, adaptive organisations.

We think the time has come to disrupt how businesses think about and approach organisation design in today’s context – to create value faster, and enable organisations to remain competitive in the modern age. Our new organisation design approach uses the values expressed in the original Agile Manifesto as a starting point and to challenge our assumptions about projects of this nature.

Agile has certainly become a business buzzword since it emerged from the world of software development. From our conversations with business leaders, while many understand the potential value of this way of working, some are understandably hesitant when it comes to introducing Agile approaches more widely across the organisation.

For HR to help embed Agile practices within the organisation, the challenge is to ensure these behaviours are lived day-to-day, so that Agile avoids becoming the next passing phase.

Here we outline the implications of the values expressed in the Agile Manifesto for the organisation design process.

1. Individuals and interactions over processes and tools

Traditional organisation design methodologies lead with strategy, then process, followed by capabilities, and finally roles and structures.  This approach relies on the ability of project teams to work through the minutiae of who does what, often very time-consuming.

At its worst traditional organisation design can become an expensive rubber-stamping exercise to set in place a business leader’s desired outcome.

Valuing individuals and interactions over processes and tools inverts this approach: it means defining strategy and teams first, before bringing together and empowering these teams to take ownership of organisational challenges to deliver on the business goals.

The team works out how processes should change and how to improve ways of working to achieve these goals. This requires transparency and a very clear sense of shared purpose, so that everyone understands what they are working towards.

It is understandable that there will be a tension between groups willing to embrace such change alongside those who may initially be more conservative. The challenge is how to balance this alongside the overall business vison.

2. Working organisation over comprehensive documentation

Conventional approaches to organisation design tend to involve developing and documenting the new organisation to a high level of detail: this is high risk and costly because resource is tied-up for a long-time until any substantial value is created.

The new organisation is subsequently designed based on assumptions about how things will be rather than anchored in reality.

If we value a working organisation over turgid documentation, then instead of documenting roles and ways of working to great levels of detail, we try them out, learn what works best, and adapt.

In this way, what we are designing is based on real information. Documentation is then ‘live’ and evolves as the team requires it rather than left to one side unused at the end of the project.

3: Customer collaboration over contract negotiation

Typical approaches bring key stakeholders together intermittently, usually at the end of each phase, to debate and sign-off proposals.

Significant amounts of project time and effort are expended on creating the presentations and detailed slide-decks, and at its worst traditional organisation design can become an expensive rubber-stamping exercise to set in place a business leader’s desired outcome.

To prioritise stakeholder collaboration over decision negotiation, teams develop regular, short, face-to-face engagement with stakeholders and lots of small approval points rather than big sign-off events. There is transparency about the work underway and an environment where the team can test out new processes, technology and ways of working.

People accept the risk that things will go wrong because trying new approaches will allow the team to learn from mistakes, reflect on how they can work better together and adapt.

Teams need to keep it simple: different teams and functions within the business will have varying levels of knowledge and understanding. From a leadership perspective this means taking a leap of faith and moving away from the management protocol of always knowing the answer.

Yet empowerment shouldn’t be about delegating responsibility. Instead it should be clear how leadership teams are asking others to take control, what they’re asking others to do and take accountability for.

If we value responding to change then we work phase-to-phase as opposed to setting out a well-defined project plan.

4: Responding to change over following a plan

Organisation design projects have traditionally been made up of distinct, linear phases from an initial assessment phase through to implementation.

If we value responding to change then we work phase-to-phase as opposed to setting out a well-defined project plan.

This is likely to involve an initial assessment phase, followed by a series of ‘sprints’, during which ideas are tested, new learning is gathered, and new priorities clarified.

This shifts the timeframe so that it is firmly rooted in the present, based on real working knowledge as opposed to theory. Fully enabling this continuous and iterative style requires a further change in how programme offices are run, with an emphasis on funding teams rather than projects.  

Applying these values and practices isn’t easy and requires fundamentally rethinking the traditional approach in a more transparent and collaborative way.

However, for the most common organisation design challenges we see, those that are focussed on driving efficiency or re-aligning behind new goals, the agile philosophy and working practices offer a new way of achieving success, more quickly and efficiently, with clearer outcomes. 

Author Profile Picture
Helen Charles-Edwards

Head of Organisation Development

Read more from Helen Charles-Edwards

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