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Collaborative Organization Design — Agile & Adaptable

In a recent blog, Collaboration Platforms — Social & Technical & Environmental, I specified that collaboration is emerging as the standard for organization design.

Organization design is a business solution or process that produces (designs) an organization’s structure, roles, relationships, systems and processes.  In its historical development, organization design has been singularly implemented by a design expert.  Often this expert was external to the organization s/he was attempting to design.  That meant s/he required a good deal of time upfront to self-educate on its existing culture and structure.  To better preserve this new learning within the organization rather than see it exit with the external expert, organization designers evolved a design team structure with internal representation from across the enterprise.

This innovation of an internal design team, still led by a design expert, managed to transfer and retain design knowledge inside the organization — albeit to a very small group who often were referred to by other organizational members as the “Dream Team”.  Why?  . . .  because the learning and development of a Dream Team was extensive and typically catapulted these individuals into plum jobs within their organization or with their competitors.  Fundamentally, neither the expert designer nor the expert-led design team adequately achieved the purpose of organization design — enabling an organization to continually adapt quickly and effectively to its business, social and ecological environment.

A natural iteration to the design challenges of agility and adaptability emerged in multiple design teams who involve all in the organization whose work would be impacted and are facilitated by a process expert.  With all the right people involved, the once one-time event of organization design became an agile and adaptable business process capable of being continuously redesigned as needed . . . at least that was the intent.

What emerged has been a tremendous learning curve given the current mistrust and misunderstanding paramount in social relationships.  A current indicator of relationship breakdown for Baby Boomers is our divorce rate — 40% for first marriages, 60% for second marriages.  Learning how to get along with each other is vital in a world where globalization and digitization are forcing collaboration across ethnic, cultural, and structural boundaries.  These additional complexities inserted into the organization design process bring forth unknown dynamics and issues.  To better navigate unknown territory, agreement on a set of guiding principles for how to work together establishes a shared contract (common ground).  The small win achieved through such agreement (see the guidelines below) heightens understanding and begins building the trust needed to successfully transform difficult decisions into shared will and purpose.


Guiding Principles for Collaborative Organization Design


1.  Whole system optimization – people, purpose, planet, prosperity.  
This “many/and” agenda of simultaneous innovation and joint optimization (surviving and thriving) across all systems (social, technical, ecological and economical) supports integration and balance rather than manipulation and consumption.

2.  Human centered and participative.  By ensuring that the people who do the work design the enterprise, the enterprise is developing its people potential and thus, its own. This was much easier to see in the workplace of the 20th century.  In the 21st century workplace, the people who do the work may belong to a single firm (a VIDO – Vertically-Integrated Decentralized Organization), a network of supply chains (a VRN – a Value Realization Network) or a societal network of individuals, supply chains and enterprises (an IBES – Issue-based Ecosystem).  In fact, research indicates that these three levels of complexity must also be coordinated simultaneously because every individual or firm is interdependently nested within a larger system.

3.  Supportive infrastructure and coordination systems.  Alignment between structure, systems and processes internalizes the collaborative climate.  If competitive support systems (i.e., pay and rewards) exist, many staff will opt to compete rather than collaborate.

4.  Minimum critical specifications.  General design parameters may be initially provided, but the detailed design must be at the discretion of the design teams.

5.  Shared governance based on collaborative and emergent leadership.  Collaboration between CEOs, VPs, front-line staff and union representatives shifts from respecting authority to respecting leadership based on who has the right information and skills at the right moment.

6.  Genuine partnership based on shared purpose and mutual benefit.  Intentions and agendas are not hidden but instead openly discussed and agreed upon based on meeting all stakeholders’ needs.

7.  Autonomy and accountability.  Regardless of their organizational role, staff has the capability and authority to make decisions regarding outcomes that impact them, and they are held responsible for the consequences of their decision making.

8.  Learning and knowledge sharing.  For purposes of whole system integration and balance (sustainability), transparency and continuous learning are essential ingredients.

9.  Dynamic, iterative design and mutual adaptation.  Organization design shifts from a one-time “let’s-get-it-perfect” event to a continuously redesigned “good enough for now” work process allowing an enterprise to adapt rapidly to its emerging environment.

Picture an entire organization, whether 40 or 400 or 4000, agreeing on the principles above and then redesigning how they will work together to evolve and grow their agility and adaptability.  Doesn’t that capture your interest and imagination?

For more on collaborative design of adaptive enterprises, click here.

Author: Helen Maupin

Author: Helen Maupin

Helen is passionate about transforming fear into love — from her, for her, for all. She expresses her commitment to transformation through writing poetry, self-awareness and yoga books, co-designing organizations into adaptive enterprises and deepening her daily meditation and yoga practices.

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