Client Director Ashridge Executive Education
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Organisational design: here's the dirty little secret

12th Dec 2016
Client Director Ashridge Executive Education
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Incredible secret being whispered
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Whilst a plethora of books have been written about the right way to link the strategy of an organization to the work that people do and how they are organized to do it, our latest research suggests that the reality on the ground can be very different indeed.

When interviewing for our research, we were often told in hushed tones that – rather than being the outcome of a rigorous and objective process – new organization designs were “gamed” or simply pushed through by senior stakeholders who had a pre-defined view of what the endpoint should look like.

Someone said: “…I guess that, like in many companies…basically at the end sometimes our CEO decides what it is…”

Very few redesign approaches were described by people as “clean”, where decisions were taken objectively following a logical process.

Sub-optimal decisions in OD

It seems that, as in life, the realities and pressures of relationships, vested interests and priorities lead us to make sub-optimal decisions.

Leaders can be heavily influenced by assumptions about what a future organization should look or feel like, and seek to make this a reality in spite of what facts might indicate.

Whether you use external support or not, perhaps it is too much to believe that we can banish subjectivity from the process or make all re-designs squeaky clean.

David Armstrong describes this phenomenon as “the organization in the mind.”

That is not to say that we should shrug our shoulders and accept untested subjective preferences.

The challenge for leaders is to acknowledge (to themselves and to other team members) their assumptions whilst staying open to new data that may emerge. Easy to suggest but difficult in practice.

The nature of objectivity

We also know that many leaders are acutely aware of the difficulty of making objective decisions within their leadership teams.

“There’s a real kind of behavioral thing to get people to detach themselves and say ‘I’m designing a future world that may not have me in it’.”

Secrets, or confidentiality at least, are sometimes appropriate and subjective decisions necessary.

This led some organizations to an “elastic-band” effect of outsourcing the whole process to keep the decisions clean.

“It’s one of the appeals of getting external people to do it. They come with no baggage, they’ve got no skin in the game.”

That may be the advantage of using external consultants. However, there are also downsides...

One executive described bitterly the fact that very large parts of the design process had been outsourced to consultants with the result being a loss of learning, high fees and a loss of control for the sake of perceived objectivity and expertise.

Whether you use external support or not, perhaps it is too much to believe that we can banish subjectivity from the process or make all re-designs squeaky clean.

After all, secrets, or confidentiality at least, are sometimes appropriate and subjective decisions necessary.

Bringing the secret out into the open, being more open about the realities of re-design and the process that is being used, and about who will be making those all important decisions, would go a long way to improving trust and confidence amongst those impacted by re-designs.

Find out more and download the full report from Dev and Phillipa's research here: (Re-)designing organizations: lessons from the field.

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