Organization Design Is More Than Structure

Recently I was on site with a client running a three and a half day training session on organization design. Central to this training was our Rubik’s Cube model of organization design, including the concept of how organization design is much broader than just organization structure. On the third day, as we were well into the training on our methodology and tools one of the participants raised her hand and asked, “When do we do the structure?”

While I answered politely, internally I was thinking, “Did you miss the point?” As it turns out, I didn’t need to say it out loud; her fellow workshop participants jumped in and expressed this sentiment for me. But, the incident does go to show how deeply entrenched the idea is that “real organization design work” is synonymous with getting the boxes and lines right on the organization structure.

Experiences like these are far from rare. It is common for leaders to approach our company just wanting help in creating a structure. But, there are a lot of reasons why limiting organization design just to structure can be a mistake.

Why the Structure-Centric Mindset Doesn’t Cut It

When we focus exclusively on organization structure, we end up putting a lot of pressure on that structure to fix and/or enable all the things we hope can happen through the organization. In actuality, organization design encompasses much more than structure alone. We will be far better served by looking at it in a more holistic way and putting the appropriate expectations on other aspects of the organizational Cube – i.e., work processes, governance, metrics/information, people/rewards, continuous improvement, and culture/leadership.

For example, if we expect everything to be accomplished through changes in structure, we are ignoring many important aspects of how the organization works. In essence, we are assuming that when we draw up that org chart, everyone already knows how to work, who to communicate with, what they’re rewarded for, what they’re measured on, what kind of culture we expect them to be a part of, and so on. These are all very important dimensions that structure alone doesn’t address but that have tremendous impact on an organization’s success.

When we look at organization design more broadly as a system of choices, we can ask: what set of choices across this entire system will best enable the kind of results we want? When we approach it this way, rather than putting all the pressure on one element to perform, organization design becomes a way to adjust and manipulate many levers to achieve desired results.

How to Use the Cube to Advantage

Breaking free from entrenched beliefs is a challenging process. Even leaders and practitioners who do take a more holistic view of organization design have to remind themselves from time to time to examine their actual practices and ask themselves: “Does the way I behave and lead really reflect my knowledge that organization design is more than just structure?”

Let’s break that question down further using all six sides of the organizational Cube model. Ask yourself how each of the following elements are helping your organization achieve desired strategy and results:

  • The way work is done in your organization
  • The way your organization is structured
  • How your organization uses and analyzes data
  • The way you recruit, manage, and reward people in your organization
  • Your systems and methods for continuously improving your organization
  • Your organization’s culture and leadership

Regularly examining all elements of your organization in this way is an excellent way to ensure that your organization design efforts take the whole organization into account. Doing so will actually help to strengthen and support the changes you do make to your organization structure, so they are more likely to result in success.

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