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Organisation design without organisational development? Can’t be done

In fact, it is bonkers. And before I provoke a storm of interdisciplinary warfare between opposing camps of practitioners, let me backtrack for a moment and start with a couple of definitions:

Organisational Development: “a systematic approach to improving organisational effectiveness – one that aligns strategy, people and processes” – Roffey Park’s definition

Organisation Design: “a dynamic process of aligning structure, systems and processes with purpose so that people can give their best performance” – from my fellow programme director, Simon Gott

Anyone who knows Roffey Park is aware we have been steeped in organisational development for the last two decades. Our reputation, credibility and expertise in that area is known. Organisation design is not something we have explicitly offered (until now) in our open and qualification programmes, although we have used models and theories from that discipline within the latter, and as part of our approach to some tailored client projects.

But that begs the question as to how different the two fields are, which other fields might have something to say (I hear Change and HR people hollering and wanting to be let in, rightly so), where the boundaries between knowledge and practice are, who gets to decide and whether this really matters. If we were having an academic debate, over a Cocktail or Mocktail at the bar during a conference, it wouldn’t. In reality, how organisation design is framed and in turn applied in practice and reality is what matters, hugely. There are a number of reasons for this, not least the following:

Org Design is not just theory

Learning about 5S/6S/7S (must be time for an 8th – ‘Sausages’ maybe?), Galbraith, Nadler & Tushman and other classics of the genre in a classroom context implies that knowledge transfer is sufficient. Anyone who has attempted to become proficient in a skill, whether that be playing a piano, learning to tap dance, driving a car, managing a team or leading an organisation knows that however many books you read from ‘experts’ is meaningless, unless you can practice and apply.

Organisation design is not about finding the ‘right model’

In fact, I would go so far as to say that there is no right model, ever. It is context dependent, based on the organisation, its current state and where it wants to be, and the ability of those involved to translate theory to practice, and more specifically, to reality.

Organisation design is about what you do when you do it

Photo of the organisation design

When you turn up at the office on a Monday morning, with ‘Do Org Design on X’, what actually will you do? Let’s say you favour 7S. Take anyone of the 7 areas below, and ask yourself: “If I want to intervene in Strategy, what are my first steps?” If not the first or second step, although pretty soon after “make cup of tea”, “write to do list”, “plan day”, you will get to something that will require you to talk with one or more other people, listen, influence, maybe mediate and negotiate.

Organisation design in practice

The practice of organisation design unfolds with, and is ultimately totally dependent upon, the skills and ability that you have when it comes to intervening in a human system. And intervening in a human system to (re-)design it requires not simply seeing the whole organisation. Whether you are designing in to serve customers better, change culture, integrate new technology, expand, shrink or a combination of two or more of these, organisation design thinking is not enough. It requires a practice that equips you to understand and intervene at organisation, team and individual levels.

By way of an example, I know of two organisations – one with thousands of staff, the other with a few hundred, who have both redesigned themselves in line with a ‘matrix model’, with accompanying expectations around how culture and behaviour needs to change. The problem is, they are left with new structures and many of the same behaviours from before. The interventions they need require them to intervene at that cultural, behavioural, interpersonal level, to get into the differences between espoused and lived values and their conflict.

For those reasons, you cannot skilfully ‘do’ organisation design without some organisational development practice. The reverse is not true. Naomi Standford offers a useful analogy here:

“Organization design is deciding first what is the purpose of the car that you are about to design e.g. is it to cross the desert? Is it to win a Formula 1 race? Is it to transport two adults and three children to a party? Then designing and delivering a car that is fit for that purpose.”

Organization development is about keeping that vehicle in the condition necessary to achieve the purpose e.g. using the right fuel, having it serviced regularly, teaching the driver how to drive it to maximise its performance, and so on.”

As an organisational development practitioner, I may have an engagement that requires me to work with a client at individual or team level that will never touch wider design issues. At the organisation or system level, the boundaries do however become blurred. And the more recent thinking that is influencing organisation design means this is critical. Frederic LaLoux’s approach to Teale organisations, Niels Pflaeging’s work, and more recently Rupert Morrison’s Data Driven Organisaton Design approach– all these cannot be achieved without organisation design being about practice as well as theory.

And that is why we need to challenge the assertion in the title of this post, and many others. It is not helpful or useful, and whilst we intellectually pontificate our clients are left wondering what the hell to do. Our new programme aims to step into this space, and is concerned less with finding the right answer, and more concerned with supporting you to find the right and most appropriate answer in your current context, and identify how, as a practitioner, you will do that.

And let’s be clear: that is not a call for us to become organisational development practitioners with a little bit of organisation design thrown in, rather an invitation to consider the possibility that whenever you apply theory to practice (aka acting in the real world, interacting with others), you are a practitioner. That in turn invites the question of whether you are skilled in that practice, and what skilful practice looks, feels and sounds like.

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