There are two words within Organisation Design. So, what is there to learn about the second word, Design? What can other fields teach us? Are there any universal truths? What inspiration can we gain?
We sought to answer these questions at the first Organisation Design Inspiration Group, held at the Board Room at the University Of Westminster Board Room on September 11th 2012. To do this, we had a leading Architect from The Netherlands, Philip Vencken, present his design process and thoughts.
An example of Philip’s work is the award winning International HQ of Sabic, seen in the pictures below.
Attending the meeting were a group of leading practioners (HRDs, Transformation Directors, Ops Directors, Independent Consultants, and Academics). As Philip talked through the process, challenges and best practices, it was amazing how much resonated. Below are several, in no particular order, of these lessons learnt:
1. Whoever is driving the design, they should drive it down to the detail. The CEO of Sabic drove the HQ design. It wasn’t just about making a big statement, it was about making working in the building both more enjoyable and productive. Space, how employees interact, a sense of calm, were all critical. Productivity increased by well over 10% as a result.
2. Trust – you need to trust the Architect. They won’t have all the answers on day one and nor should they. They need to work it out. Play with options – test whether the big ideas still work once the detail has been gone through. The creative process is an iterative one. The detail informs the big picture. The problem, often & way too often, is a lack of trust. The way around this is to contract for extremely specific milestones. E.g. if there are 7 stages in the process, you get paid at the end of each stage for that stage. The contract is detailed to protect both sides but in actual fact will only end up hurting both sides, limiting the true quality. The less the trust, the greater the transaction costs and worse the end result is likely to be. What struck me is how true this is also for software development (at Concentra we also build analytical and software solutions for clients). The mindset without trust is they will “screw me”, so I need to protect myself OR I have to go through a procurement process and tie all elements down. So reams of documentation are produced at great expense. The problem is, we are constantly learning and what is envisaged in the beginning is almost certainly below the standard we can achieve by the end. Often clients will say, “I want a car” and a car needs 4 wheels – but what if we built a plane? A Henry Ford said, if I asked people what they wanted, they would have told me a faster horse.
3. Keeping an eye on the entire end-to-end solution – part of the problem with Architecture is the degree of specialisation that different firms have. Those that do the initial concept drawings may have nothing to do with the structural engineering or finishing. No-one with the right skill-set is thinking the whole thing through.
4. Good Design Creates
a. A positive frame of mind
5. God is in the Details
Philip discussed the huge disappointment with a new landmark building in The Netherlands – The new Central Station in Rotterdam. The big elements, the structure, is spectacular. But the finishing is cheap and of poor quality. The detail isn’t thought through and therefore it just doesn’t work. I can just see a group of extremely senior people envisaging the impact this new building will have on the image of this proud city, a city which was flattened during the war (my grandparents on my mother’s side were living in Rotterdam during the war. Their house was totally destroyed. They were given 10 minutes to evacuate and for whatever reason my grandmother decided to take a shoe shining box. The city is still recovering architecturally and it is sad to hear that a big opportunity to make a building that thousands travel through each day isn’t going to have the envisaged impact because the detail was not properly thought through).
The trick is to do less better. Take everything that isn’t necessary out, step back to the truly critical points and make what is left attain the highest standards of quality.
For the Sabic buildings all the finishing was design to fit with the feel. Great craftsmen, e.g. carpenters, were used.
6. Function and Form have to go together – too often people just focus on form (what it looks like). Great design is highly functional. It just works, think of the iPod/Pad or any Apple product for that matter. During the talk, we spent a far amount of time discussing Rams, who was a big inspirer of Steve Jobs. Rams said, “Weniger Aber Besser” which roughly translates as “Less, but better”. We talked about timeless design and how great design stays current. The below BRAUN design was for the 1950s but still feels contemporary.
Early findings from our org design research highlights just how frequently organisations are re-designed (not yet statistically significant, so only directional — large scale OD, every 2.5 years. See more below on this. Point g).
7. The ten principles of good design, according to Rams are in black below. The comments in italics are my thoughts as they relate to organisational design.
a. Good Design Is Innovative — the possibilities for innovation are not, by any means, exhausted. Technological development is always offering new opportunities for innovative design. But innovative design always develops in tandem with innovative technology, and can never be an end in itself. — This of process automation; impact of telecommunications and the virtual office; how a product like OrgVue can lead to new insights.
b. Good Design Makes a Product Useful — a product is bought to be used. It has to satisfy certain criteria, not only functional but also psychological and aesthetic. Good design emphasizes the usefulness of a product while disregarding anything that could possibly detract from it. — It is about the value of that the organisation creates, about how it is there to drive towards the goals, strategy and vision.
c. Good Design Is Aesthetic — the aesthetic quality of a product is integral to its usefulness because products are used every day and have an effect on people and their well-being. Only well-executed objects can be beautiful. — Not sure about this one, metaphors can only be stretch so far. I am open to idea.
d. Good Design Makes a Product Understandable — it clarifies the product’s structure. Better still, it can make the product clearly express its function by making use of the user’s intuition. At best, it is self-explanatory. — What is everyone’s role? From an employee perspective, how do you fit in?
e. Good Design Is Unobtrusive — Products fulfilling a purpose are like tools. They are neither decorative objects nor works of art. Their design should therefore be both neutral and restrained, to leave room for the user’s self-expression. — It isn’t about the structure, it is about how a group of people are organised so that the strategy & vision can be met.
f. Good Design Is Honest — it does not make a product more innovative, powerful or valuable than it really is. It does not attempt to manipulate the consumer with promises that cannot be kept. — Too often the design is based on politics and powerful individuals’ lusts for even more power/protection of their power & egos.
g. Good Design Is Long-lasting — it avoids being fashionable and therefore never appears antiquated. Unlike fashionable design, it lasts many years – even in today’s throwaway society. — On average, our emerging research shows, that there is a large scale reorganisation ever 2.5 years and over 30 Org Designs every 5-years (small to large scale). Moving chairs on the Titanic is an analogy often quoted to me. Why? Because, in many cases this is the result of poor design.
h. Good Design Is Thorough Down to the Last Detail —nothing must be arbitrary or left to chance. Care and accuracy in the design process show respect towards the consumer. — This is the whole point of Micro design. It isn’t just about the big trade-offs and option analysis. It isn’t just about the Org Charts & Structure. An organisation is a system. This requires system thinking, and getting all the elements right (accountabilities, process, competencies, right numbers of FTEs per role…)
i. Good Design Is Environmentally Friendly — Design makes an important contribution to the preservation of the environment. It conserves resources and minimises physical and visual pollution throughout the lifecycle of the product. — Good Org Design is efficient, it drives better employee engagement, succession planning and sustainability. It drives better all-round productivity and in general “fitness” – flexibility, stamina, strength, efficiency…
j. Good Design Is as Little Design as Possible — Less, but better – because it concentrates on the essential aspects, and the products are not burdened with non-essentials. Back to purity, back to simplicity. — Focus on what is core. This is the whole make vs. buy decision making process. This is about where to focus and where not to focus. It is much harder to take things out rather than add things in.
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