Two Reasons to Take A Process Approach to Organization Design

  |  November 27, 2018

In art and art education circles, there is an ongoing debate around the concept of Process vs. Product. The conventional approach focuses on the end product as the ultimate goal. Process art, on the other hand, emphasizes the creative journey—and proponents of this approach claim that it fosters self-confidence and creative problem solving, and ultimately results in a final product that is more innovative, dynamic, and interesting.

A similar dilemma exists in the realm of organization design. A common perception is that the purpose of organization design is to supply answers. When someone comes to us with an organization design question, they often come expecting to simply receive straight-up answers: in essence, a product-centric approach. However, when you dig deeper, what they often really want or need is an approach to exploring the business question in ways that generate good answers: in other words, a process.

Both approaches do result in answers, but there is a qualitative difference between the two. I believe that in most cases, it is more important to focus on the process of coming to an organization design answer than on the answer itself.

Thought Evolution and the Organization Design Process

Why is a process approach preferable to a product or answer approach in organization design?

One reason is because organizations are a reflection of the collective logic of how people in the organization think. Handing the organization a new design blueprint or answer does very little to change the way people think about their organization. While it’s possible they might get a new idea when they glance at the blueprint, the organization design answer doesn’t change their thinking, at least not right away. They usually have to experience it, reverse engineer it, or build it out themselves to validate and confirm that what they’re looking at in the blueprint is a good answer.

The reason they have to do that is because the organization is an embodiment of how people thought about their organization in the past, and how they achieved success. To view an answer as the be-all and end-all of organization design is to miss a very important socialization process whereby people’s thought patterns and ways of thinking evolve and change into what is going to lead to new results in the future.

Accelerating Implementation

Another reason is because taking a process approach to organization design facilitates implementation. When a company receives an organization design blueprint from a consultant without attention to process, it often creates confusion and/or resistance.  Because they haven’t had the chance to think about it or contribute to it, what typically happens is that they take it, look at it, and say, “that’s not how we do things, so I don’t think this would work.” Or, they try to implement the blueprint by doing what they do today in that blueprint, and nothing really changes. They spend all their time and energy trying to figure out how to use old approaches and processes in a new configuration that may not be suited to what has historically been done.

In contrast, when they have been guided through an organization design process approach and understand all the ins and outs of why there is a change, organization members are better able to make changes in a way that makes logical and strategic sense.

Keeping the Organization Design Process Sustainable

Sometimes we get hired by clients who want an answer. They want to know the right way to grow their business, the best way to enter a new market, or how other companies have succeeded in organizing their business, for instance how to build out an organization to grow in China or how to shift from a product focus to a customer focus. These are all good design questions, but to some extent the answer should always be: “it depends.” It depends on how your organization and your leaders work through the process to come up with options. And, it depends on how you weigh those options to come forward with what you believe is the right way to get results given your market, your offerings, your processes, your talent, your values, etc.

I’m not opposed to giving an answer in organization design efforts. However, I believe those answers are best arrived at after we’ve worked through an organization design process that helps people examine or rethink their organization choices. As leaders work through our unique organization design process, we find that organizations are in a much better position to communicate their rationale for choices they make, to implement those choices, and to make changes to their organization in a sustainable way. This is because they’ve been part of creating the answer rather than just looking for a silver bullet to give them the answer.

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