The pictures show the orchestra that my son of 9 years is a member of.
As you see, some seats are empty in the first photo – why? Let me tell you the story – and explain why this is related to a key organization design principle. One that is becoming increasingly important.
My son started in the orchestra two years ago. He was then only 7 years old, while most of the other children were older and had practiced playing their instruments longer.
As a parent, I was somewhat concerned that the level was too high for the smaller kids. The conductor chose difficult pieces from well known composers, even some pieces that “real” orchestras with adults play.
I expressed my concern a couple of times, but I was told that it worked reasonably well, because the conductor would simplify the score and give the simplest, 2nd or 3rd violin section to the smallest kids.
Nonetheless, I felt it was something of a compromise, particularly when they practiced: The oldest kids easily did they part, and became bored when listening to the second and third violin section rehearsing their parts with the conductor time after time. The youngest kids, on the other hand, could have benefited from even more time practicing.
When we came back after holiday this Fall, however, I noticed that a new system had been introduced. Instead of everybody practicing together, the conductor had split the orchestra practice into three parts:
05:00 pm: The youngest kids meet and practice for 45 minutes (image 1 above).
05:45 pm: Break
06:00 pm: The older kids join, and everybody practices together (image 2 above)
06:30 pm: The younger kids leave and the older ones practice for another half hour alone
So what does this have to do with organization design? Quite a lot, I would argue.
The basic idea is that a well performing organization must be designed to address its demands (or functional requirements, if you want a more technical term).
The conductor realized that there were really two incompatible demands or functional requirements in this case: The first to provide adequate level of challenge for the older children, the second to provide adequate level of challenge for the younger children. And he gradually realized that these two functions were somewhat incompatible.
I think this is fairly similar to the situation facing many leaders in complex organizations. They may be responsible for a diverse group of people, activities, and customers.
Leaders must constantly evaluate whether the current design is the right one; whether the unit they lead really serves one key function, or whether there are actually two or more distinct functions, which would suggest a different organizational design.
It’s not easy to do two things well – to fulfill two functions or meet two demands – at the same time. And for most organizations, the best advice is probably to focus on only one thing. This has been documented in academic research. Focused companies (or organizational units) generally do better.
Typically, when an organization can’t focus, and the organization needs to do two things, leaders end up with a compromise solution that is neither fish nor fowl.
This is one reason why so many organizations achieve only mediocre performance – they are unable to optimize performance because they are addressing two or more demands, and when trying to address the first (“Develop a product for customer group 1”), it compromises their ability to meet the second (“Develop a product for customer group 2”).
Yet as this example shows, there are designs that reconcile conflicting goals and make it possible to do two things at the same time. The key is to find, or invent, the design that “dissolves” the conflict between the two goals or functions. You do it by separating some roles and activities, while integrating others.
It is not easy. Even in this simple example, it took the conductor several months to introduce the slightly altered schedule. The new system also involved an additional cost: People have to turn up earlier and the practice sessions last for 30 minutes more than they used to. But that’s a fairly small cost compared to splitting the orchestra in two, or continue with the previous system.
Conclusion: If you are a creative organizational architect, you should be able to discover or invent a design that helps you achieve top performance – even when the organization needs to do two things rather than one.
By the way, if you want a more analytical approach, there are three chapters in my book (chapters 1, 2 and 8 ) where I discuss how an approach – developed by former MIT professor Nam Suh – called axiomatic design can be used to analyze these kinds of problems.