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Insight | What is organisational design, and why does it matter?

12 June 2017

Organisational Change and Development Consultant, Peter Ainley-Walker, argues failure to think deeply about how organisations are put together is a huge missed opportunity.

You wouldn’t build a car or a house without first giving careful thought to how each individual part should fit and work together. From the smallest bolt or brick, to the bonnet or the largest rafter; each and every piece has to be built and organised in the right way to fit with the others, or the finished product simply won’t work as well as it could.

Yet, when it comes to the organisations that underpin our economy and society – organisations that may have tens of thousands of moving parts that need to work together – design is often an afterthought.

Our natural focus tends to be on the products or services produced, or the performance delivered.  What gets forgotten are the underlying structures, processes and behaviours that deliver those products and services, and which shape how well the organisation performs.

Failure to think deeply and strategically about how these things come together and interact, not just today but for the future is a huge missed opportunity.  One that can even challenge the future sustainability of the organisation.

Organisational Design (OD) takes a broad view approach to how organisations operate. More than just a way of structuring hierarchies, a holistic OD approach also considers the skills, capabilities and culture a business or institution needs to flourish, and how all these things interact together.

Some will argue that this is intellectualising and an unnecessary distraction from the day-to-day necessities of survival or growth. But that’s a myopic argument. After all, every organisation is already perfectly designed for the results it’s currently achieving. To make a difference, something has to change. And the responsibility for that lies at the top, in the boardroom not in the Human Resources department.

In today’s workplace, where historic command and control is less and less effective, and where diverse, multi-disciplinary, multi-geography workforces are the norm, not only do we need to work differently. We also need to think differently about how our organisations are designed.

The competitive, rapidly changing environment requires that at the most senior levels questions must constantly be asked – Are we getting the outcomes we need now, and will we get those we’ll need in the future? What’s getting in the way? Could we design our organisation better to meet these goals?

Of course, there is never one right answer and every design has compromises – but that’s not an excuse for not having the conversations.

Peter Ainley-Walker is an Organisational Change and Development Consultant with AW Organisational Development Consulting.

He will host a Seeing, Thinking & Doing Design Masterclass at the Business School on 6 November 2017.

Image source: @istockphoto/Henrik5000