Purely top-down decision processes are becoming less common. The leader is still responsible for making the final decision (as he/she should be) when it comes to organizational re-designs. But most leaders realize that organization design decisions are complex, that there may be multiple alternatives, and that people at lower levels of the organization may have access to information that should inform the decision. For this reason, some degree of participation and involvement is nearly always sought, by means of interviews, workshops, distribution and analysis of surveys, or circulation and discussion of proposed models among key managers.
Yet more participation does not automatically lead to a better process. One key challenge that I have noted is to strike a balance between divergence (creating alternatives/ideas) and convergence (getting closure and reaching consensus on a given solution). It’s relatively easy to ask 100 managers for their feedback regarding a proposed new organizational model. It is far more difficult to actually process the information that you then receive – each manager may have 5 or more concerns, and their concerns or ideas may (if you are unlucky!) be both sensible and thoughtful. So then you have 500 things that may need to be considered. Do you have the capacity for that? Do you have the time?
The key is to carefully structure the organization re-design process in manner so you get divergence and convergence at the right points in time. You want as many as ideas regarding possible problems and solutions at the early stage. Later, you want a finite set of decision alternatives that can be evaluated against each other.
It is also important to consider how to ask questions during the process. If a large number of people are involved, it may not be feasible to ask open-ended questions, particularly not at the later stages. Then the alternatives and decision criteria should already be established and accepted, so people should not be asked to offer their general opinion about what to do, but be invited to evaluate specific alternatives against the defined criteria.
A project team may also create various types of tools for handling the information that is collected. I sometimes use an “issue log” – a simple list in an Excel file – where I write down observations and ideas that I have myself as well as ideas and comments from those that I interview or work with in workshops. I try to categorize the issues so that I can quickly group and search through the items when the need arises.
Far too often, project teams ask for input from the organization, but have insufficient capacity for processing the information that they receive. The result is often the opposite of what is intended: Rather than increased engagement and ownership, people become frustrated and even cynical if they perceive the participatory process as less than genuine. If we want real participation in a re-design process, we need to plan how to collect, analyze, and act on ideas and suggestions from people that get involved.