Why is it so damn hard to discuss organizational design issues?
If you work in a large organizations, you probably observe issues that you feel should be addressed. Some of which may require a re-design of the organization.
But it is one thing to see the potential for improvement. It is quite another to get others to see the same potential, and to agree to a particular proposal for change.
Organizational design issues are particularly challenging to raise and to discuss in a constructive manner. More so than issues related to, say, strategy or operations.
Changes in the design of the organization usually have direct implications for individuals and their roles. It’s not easy to propose a change that may create “noise” among people whose roles are affected.
If you are a line manager, any suggestions you make will likely be interpreted in a political light: “Jim keeps on building his internal empire. Now he wants to merge IT and Operations”.
Then there’s the problem of how to describe an idea for a change. We all have idioynscratic experiences. People in different units and with different backgrounds may interpret the same word, or the same visual model, in different ways.
I remember a meeting I once had with a senior executive. We discussed various challenges and opportunities in his company. When he walked me to the reception area after the meeting, he summed up the meeting in the following way: “You know…I am more interested in how we work, than in organization charts”.
Somehow, I had managed to create the impression that organization design is about the final polishing of organization charts. Obviously, I had chosen the wrong words.
But which words should we choose? There is no standard terminology for describing organizations. If you try to consult books and articles on the subject, you will find that that there are a myriad of theories and approaches, each using its own terminology. In addition, concepts and models are constantly being re-invented.
A wise man once said that “half of the communication problems in the world are caused by people using different words for the same thing”. He went on to say: “The other half is caused by people using the same word for different things”.
If this wasn’t enough, organizational design is only partly visible to us. I sometimes think about organization design as an iceberg – you can view the “manifest” organization by looking at the formal units, the management layers and titles of different people.
But the real design is hidden from view. How we actually work may not be the way we present our organization chart in the annual report. Equally important, the goals and intentions behind the current design are usually not written down and communicated in the same manner as the formal structure.
All this makes it difficult to discuss organizational design issues. Which in turn makes it difficult to change the organization. Which in turn makes it difficult to improve performance.
How can we make it simpler?
The most important thing is probably to be aware of the challenge.
For example, if we stop assuming that people will automatically understand what we are trying to communicate, we can prepare.
When giving a presentation, we can set aside time for a brief discussion mid-way in the presentation, so that we get feedback on how the message was received. Then we can adjust how we present the remaining part of our presentation.
When I interview managers in my own projects, I try to ask open-ended questions to hear how people interpret a particular concept or idea: “In the strategy process, your CEO concluded that you need a more “global” organization. What does this concept mean to you – in what ways to you think we need to change to become more global?”
Sometimes, I find that people interpret the concept or idea in very different ways. This can be powerful data in itself, data that are useful for understanding both the current organization and how one can facilitate a change process.
To handle the political and psychological factors related to a possible change, the best approach is to view organization re-design as a negotation process with different stakeholders. The main advice that negotiation experts like William Ury give to people who negotiate is the following: “Principles first, solutions later” (The methodology I describe in my book is based on this key insight.)
One part of this is to separate individuals and their roles. The elimination, addition, or change of a role held by an individual is a potential solution – before you go that far, make sure that you have agreement on the principles – about what you are trying to achieve.
Finally, it’s hard to improve something that we can’t even describe. Instead of the iceberg that is mainly invisible, we need to develop much better ways of describing both the formal and informal organization.
We need to be able to explain why different units exists, what they do, and identify what is going in the “white space between the boxes” on the organization chart.
It does require some time and effort, but it will make it much easier to identify what the real problem is – and to have a productive dialogue about possible future changes.