For leaders considering a re-design of their organization, one of the key questions is when and how to invite other people into the decision process.
We all know that we need to get buy-in at some point, but do we involve people early, sharing our preliminary hunches about the need for a new model, or do we wait until we have it all figured out in our head?
Sharing too much information at the wrong point in time (or with the wrong people) can derail or put to a halt a process that the leader feels is necessary for the organization to succeed. In some cases it can create rumors that paralyze the people that need to keep focusing on products and customers.
Yet the overall trend in most large organizations is toward more open and transparent decision processes involving a large set of stakeholders. One example is the notion of “open strategy” described by Richard Whittington, a professor at the Said Business School at Oxford University.
But creating an open organization design process may be more difficult than creating an open strategy process.
Most organization design processes have consequences for individuals, their current roles and even their future careers. Leaders know that, and followers know that.
In some re-designs, the people who are most likely to be affected are the people closest to the leader: The members of the leadership team. Any regrouping of business units, any decentralization or centralization, and expansion or retraction may affect the composition of the leadership team.
In such cases, the direct reports – the people that in most cases will be the most heavily involved in strategic decision processes – will often be left out of the organization design process.
So leaders create a design in their head and once it has been figured out, they let others know.
It is easy to understand the reasoning. By delaying the involvement of others, the leader can reduce unnecessary “noise” and disruption, at least for some time, and can concentrate on finding the best solution, without having to compromise to suit the preferences of current leaders. After all, the best solution may require a different set of leaders.
There are some significant risks, however, with this approach.
Organization design is a process that is just too complex for a single mind, no matter how bright, to be able to take everything into consideration. I interviewed Andrew Campbell recently and he told me before the interview that “organization design is like an equation with 25 unknowns”.
What initially seems like a small reshuffling of the top team may have ripple effects throughout the organization. What seems like a good decision may not be such a good decision when a broader set of factors is taken into consideration.
So you absolutely need information and feedback from people in the organization – not only in the implementation phase, but in the design phase, before the decisions are made.
And yes, because people will be affected personally, it is a delicate process that nobody will do perfectly, and that will often require a lot of “difficult conversations”.
But the chances of succeeding increase when you “open up”. When you present your own reasoning and test critical assumptions. When you collect data and listen to feedback from those who know how the organization work.
The key to doing that – while avoidig the pitfalls described – is to get the sequencing right.
If you are a leader, you can have an open process where you diagnose the current challenges, even though you, as the leader, then have the full responsibility for deciding whether or not any problems that are encountered require further attention at this point in time.
You can involve a lot of people in discussing the design principles for a new organization and evaluate alternative options, even though you have the final say in deciding which of the options you go further with.
You can involve other people – such as internal and external advisers – in discussing which roles should be represented on the leadership team – even though you should pick the people to your team that you trust and feel are the most capable ones.
The approach that I have developed is designed to do just this: Maximize the benefits of wide participation – while ensuring that the leader retains sufficient control to feel comfortable about involving people at multiple levels throughout the process (see chapter 3 of my book for a description of the approach)