The power of organizational design

HRDC spoke to Brenda Barker Scott, lead facilitator for the Queen’s IRC Organizational Design program, to find out how meaningful design choices can enable and empower the right people in your organization

The power of organizational design

To remain competitive, organizations must stay ahead of the curve, not only by frequently analyzing and updating business strategies, but also by ensuring that people have the right organizational design to enable those strategies. The right design supports people to excel by focusing their efforts on the right work, enabling the required interactivity and energizing the right behaviours. Previously regarded as disruptive and challenging, organizational design has shifted to become a creative tool that supports and empowers leaders to build capability internally to help an organization grow and thrive.

At its root, organizational design is about reflecting on required capabilities – or, simply put, what the organization needs to be good at, whether that’s efficiency, innovation, agility or having a great employee brand. Whereas Walmart is admired for efficiency, for example, Google is admired for its innovative capabilities.

“My mission in life is to reframe organization design from something that is imposed on people to a generative and creative process,” says Brenda Barker Scott, lead facilitator for the Queen’s IRC Organizational Design program. “That’s why the process involves much more than simply changing boxes and lines on an organizational chart. Rather, it’s about stepping leaders back to reflect on new and evolving capabilities before they shift their attention to shaping prototypical designs.”

Once the desired capabilities have been determined, the next step is to build a model that will focus people on the right work, facilitate the right pattern of interactivity and foster the right kinds of contributions.

Scott outlines three building blocks of organizational design: 

  • Groupings. Group people into teams, communities and activities within the organization to focus the right people on the right work. Determine whether these groupings will be formed by activity, output, customer or a combination.
  • Linkages. Examine how to link the different groups within the organization to encourage the right levels of cooperation and collaboration. Build and encourage formal or informal relationships within the organization so that people will relate to and support one another in the most productive way. Create spaces where people can see each other and interact.
  • Contribution vibe. Shape purpose, protocols, work design and leadership to enable, support and foster the right behaviours and contributions.

As groupings shift to focus people on new capabilities, and relationships shift to enable new forms of cooperation and collaboration, behaviours also must shift. If an organization is transitioning from a focus on compliance to a customer focus, or from focusing on efficiency to focusing on innovation, then people need to contribute differently, and they will require a different set of tools and skills. 

“If we have structural change without behavioural change, it will be superficial and won’t work,” Scott says. “That’s why design is a social process as well. The design process must engage organizational design leaders and other key stakeholders in conversations to reflect on and explore why change is needed, to what and how. It’s the process or journey that creates the necessary understanding and commitments amongst leaders to support the new ways of working.” 

Scott advises leaders to follow the 4-D design process, in which every stage informs the next: 

  • Define. Do a diagnosis of the organization. What are the big trends driving change, and how are they shaping new capabilities? Who needs to be involved in this effort because they have relevant knowledge and skills or a role to play?
  • Discovery.  Collect data and insights from relevant stakeholders and informed experts around what the organization needs to determine design criteria and develop a logic model.
  • Design.  Shape design concepts to test different ways of grouping and linking before deciding upon the right design.
  • Do. Determine the phasing and timing for implementation, and then launch the new concepts so people can embrace their new units, relationships and contributions.

Just as leaders shape their business strategies on a yearly basis, they should also examine organizational design regularly to ensure that the process is aligned with business objectives and continues to be helpful and informative. In order to reap the rewards, HR must support the design process as a continuously evolving internal capability.

“This is not a static process,” Scott says. “It needs to be internal so that we can constantly shift and evolve the design. HR professionals are ideally suited to perform this important work.”

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