Organizations can get in the way of their own success. The reasons are plentiful—ineffective design, challenged teams, unclear roles or structures, cumbersome or insufficient processes, challenging authority dynamics, to name just a few. Every leader has faced that moment. When they simply know that there is something about how the organization is working that is getting in the way of achieving the full potential of its goals. And yet harnessing the collective power of an organization—with multiple talents, ideas, and a more powerful overall impact than any one individual can have—is somehow still around the corner, just out of reach. How can you build or rebuild an organization to be greater than the sum of its parts? What are the key levers to focus on and what needs tweaking or changing to ignite an organizational engine, capable of outsized impact?
Where to start?
It is often challenging to re-visit how your organization is set up because certain ways of working are simply “the way things are done around here” or have become entrenched. The turbulence leaders face in today’s uncertain times creates both a mandate and an opportunity to do what is hard to do even in more stable times: re-evaluate and make needed changes in your organization to build a sustainable future. Whether you are trying to create or reduce scale, redefine roles, ramp up innovation, clarify or change decision-making or leadership norms, it all begins by defining your goal and identifying what levers will make the most difference to get you to the future you desire.
Consider the levers to get you where you need to go:
Once you have identified your goal—e.g., what you are trying to solve for in the organization that you are building—consider which levers to focus on to get there. Here are a few:
— Functions and areas of responsibility: What are all of the kinds of work that must be accomplished and who does it? Are there things you want people to stop doing? Spend less time on? Spend more time on? Do you have all areas of responsibility accounted for somewhere
— Organizational structure: How do you organize those who do the work (and what is their relationship to each other)? Are the right parts set up to interact effectively? Is the structure aligned with your current market and strategy—geographically, functionally, or otherwise? Does your structure enable innovation?
— Leadership and governance: How do you make decisions, provide integration/oversight, and communicate (both internally and externally)? Is there a clear leadership team (does there need to be?) and are the right people on it, given what you need them to do? Are decision-making processes clear and is the leadership structure set up to enable the consultation you need to make great decisions?
— Process: How and where can you make your work more defined and repeatable? Do you iterate and differentiate in the places where unique thinking is needed and follow repeatable processes where scale and efficiency are possible and/or critical?
— Informal structure: How do you stay connected as an organization? What creates the glue that has everyone feel part of the same overarching purpose (cohesion)? What informal channels are in place and what is important to understand about how they enable work and discussion?
There is no doubt a lot to consider, but chances are that only some of the levers need attention or re-visiting to align with your current strategy. Start by assessing what is working, and then address what is getting in the way.
A few things to keep in mind when assessing how to re-align your organization with your goals:
— Organizational design needs to be linked to your purpose—structure works when it follows strategy. In assessing this, harness the power of real market forces. How do changes in the current environment translate into shifts in your goals, and how must the organization adapt to respond? Be as creative as possible in designing your organization for the market it actually exists in—and benchmarking it against real competitors.
— Structure is important, but often is too singular a focus—structure can only take an organization so far. Organizations have two dimensions—the formal and informal: both matter. In the same mode of thinking, invest in both the incremental and transformative. Pay attention both to the genuine windows for major system innovation and to the endless stream of opportunities for incremental improvements.
— Think about the real human side effects, unintended consequences. We tend to think about organizational design in too analytic a framework, ignoring the more human-based aspects of how change efforts might be experienced. Often, organizational changes end up producing exactly the opposite of what we allege we wanted. We may talk about empowerment, yet people feel less potent than before. We may talk about distributed leadership and accountability, yet people experience more centralization and less ownership. How can you think ahead to unintended consequences, and plan accordingly to align your intention with the outcomes?
— Act quickly to learn. A key feature of the current moment is strategic speed. A fast-moving company will often use multiple actions as pilots to get the organization up a learning curve, so that they can more easily adapt as the new challenges unfold.
— Think through multiple perspectives. Your people are your biggest asset. Consider their experience genuinely. Looking at your organization through the lenses of different roles is crucial to thinking through implementation.
Organizational design is never easy work. It requires taking a critical, unflinching look at the full scope of your organization. Use the current moment to take on that hard work. Your efforts today will provide the foundation for the future.