6 learnings from our “Organisational Culture & Design” module at Hyper Island

Rasmus Noah Hansen
6 min readJun 4, 2020

For the last year, eliot has been a learning partner for Hyper Island on multiple occasions. Yesterday we wrapped up an 8-weeks course with a group of wonderful students from the remote Hyper Island program, Business Development.

In this article, we’ll share some of our insights from a process perspective — leading the students through the learning experience. We will also share some of our perspectives on organizational culture and design, combined with insights from some of the most relevant speakers within this field.

Hyper Island is an international creative business school that focuses on experience-based learning. This means that the students were learning about organizational culture and design from lectures, workshops, research, and then applying that knowledge into solving real client briefs.

The briefs came from both the private and public sector, all within the spectrum of cultural/digital transformation, and learning and development strategies — where the students were fully responsible to deliver and manage the projects and clients.

Our role in the module was to design, plan, coach, facilitate, and lead the whole learning experience — both making sure the content and process maximize learnings and challenge the students to make them “real-world ready”.

Process Design Learnings

When facilitating and leading a group it’s really about bringing in the energy you wish to see in others. The same goes for learning experiences — the more we pay attention, ask questions, and bring the right energy, the easier it is for the participants to follow because they can lean up against the energy we bring.

This is even more true in a remote setting when body language, and peer energy and interaction are restricted. Bringing in tons of positive energy using optimistic language, fun check-in’s, and emoji gestures really set the scene for how the virtual lecture or collaboration will be.

01 Setting and repeating expectations

We measure our experiences solely on whether or not they live up to the expectations we set for them — whether it’s going to a restaurant, meeting old friends, or trying to change the culture of an organization in 8 weeks.

That’ why we emphasized adjusting and aligning expectations for the students early on and throughout the module to ensure they didn’t miss a great learning opportunity. For example, being frustrated by trying to develop other people's mindsets and behaviors, which is one of the hardest things we can do.

Setting the expectations goes between us and the students, and between the students and their clients. Being a change agent is all about setting expectations for deliverables, what’s possible within the timeframe and budget, the engagement and collaboration, helpful behaviors, communication, etc.

02 Order vs Chaos

For a collaborative or creative process to be successful the process design needs to be a perfect balance between order (structure, purpose, goals) and chaos (exploration, creativity, chance).

The students need to feel safe enough with the challenge, by having enough order, but also enough chaos and freedom to be explorative and creative in developing their own tools and methods for the challenge at hand.

03 Being a “don’t know’er”

A big part of experience-based learning is to build self-leadership and find your own learnings through reflection. Our role was to hold the space for the students to come up with their own answers and trust that they won’t be judged for them.

In this information-overloaded world, no one sits with the universal answer for how we solve the problems we meet at work. That is why we focused on mirroring the students' questions back to themselves to have them come up with their own answers first, for us to then discuss it together.

Our conclusions on organizational design

In a #VUCA world, organizations need to learn, adapt, and be responsive to the tensions it meets in the environment it operates. Having this mindset and building a culture with conditions that support people with the right tools and autonomy to do what you’ve hired them for, could be the boiled down conclusion from this module.

But because it deserves to be explained further, we have chosen three specific aspects that we want to highlight.

01 Complex vs. Complicated systems

Forget everything about “solving” your organization — it cannot be done. There’s no end destination in building a successful organization. It’s a never-ending journey that needs focus and attention on a continuous basis.

A key element to apply this concept is changing our understanding of organizations as something fixed and static into a living and organic system. Scientific management has had a huge effect on our efficiency, eg. how we produce and do work, but as a result, most leaders are stuck in seeing organizations as a complicated system, like the system of a watch or a car engine. As a system where we can understand what parts of the organization are broken and then change that part into new ones and believe everything will run smoothly afterward.

Instead, we need to see organizations as complex systems, something that cannot be controlled or “fixed”, but something we continuously have to nudge and experiment with. We have to look at organizations as complex systems like the traffic or the weather. Once we understand this mindset change, we also see why most organizational strategies and transformations won’t get the job done.

See this video on self-managing teams to understand how to look at organizations as something we can either control or aim to manage.

02 One size fits one.

There’s no ONE system that works for all organizations simply because all organizations are different. They operate in different markets, they have different histories and competencies, they consist of different people and have different cultures, assumptions, values, and behaviors.

Instead of thinking “if we just apply SAFE (Scaled agile framework) or the Spotify model as a system then everything will work smoothly”, you need to start by understanding and unfolding your organizational design, culture, and collaboration challenges to identify what your most profound challenges actually are.

Inspired by the process from Human-Centered Design, you can see your organization as a service or product — where you constantly have to listen and pay attention to what you hear and see from it’s “users” (the people of your organization) and then focus on solving those challenges. The idea that management knows what works best for the people closest to the problems is dated. Instead, management and leaders need to listen more and aim to understand how they can support and inspire people to do their best work.

03 Dream big, start small.

When you identified the challenges or tensions, you shouldn’t start a 3-year long “re-org” process. It’s great to set a vision — a guiding star for where you want to go—but the best way to get there is all about starting small.

You should start experimenting with new ways of working with a few teams or departments, reflect on what’s working and what’s not and then apply those learnings and introduce them to new teams and new departments and repeat the process. When you scale your new ways of working, it’s important that teams get enough autonomy to adjust accordingly to what fits their needs (back to one size fits one). Small changes usually have a profound impact and will create a growth mindset and momentum where people are more positive and excited about change and development.

eliot is an org. culture agency on a mission to improve life at work. If you’re curious to know more about how we can work together, drop us an email at hi@eliot.works or head to our website www.eliot.works.