Demystifying Org. Structure: Designing teams to perform

Yuri Zaitsev
Oct 14, 2019 · 5 min read
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We will no longer be herding cats but putting our ducks in a row (Photo Credit: Josh Calabrese).

Here is the thing: many places will copy structures without any real forethought. “First we’ll get a leader. Then we’ll need an R&D team, then an HR Team to hire people, and then a few years later we’ll beef up the Marketing Team to get sales.” You might get lucky, and that could work. But high performance isn’t stumbled upon; it is designed from the ground up.

Let me be clear. The word “places” in the above paragraph reads like it is about start ups. It is also for large corporations and most things in between. Innovation labs, centers of excellence, hybrid reorgs could suffer from having a “go get ‘em” attitude with no place to go.

Lean, agile, start up culture has become pretty popular but sometimes it results in people being rushed on-to teams with no clear idea of exactly why they are there. Or worse: when teams are running with an idea, full sprint mode, only to realize too late that they completely neglected something important. The point of this article is to bring some level of sophisticated analysis into setting up a team. We’ll design teams that are goal oriented, adaptable, collaborative, and whose actions will positively affect the future.

The good news: You most likely have all of the right things in place, it just may take a bit of sorting. There is no bad news.

Side note: This strategy for aligning teams is adapting and expanding the work done by Heather Browning on behavior modification and designing clinical interventions from 2015 as well as a bit of Henry Mintzberg’s insights about org. structures from 1979.

The strategy is a flow that separates responsibilities into buckets, that you will need to address in the right order. It all builds off of each other, so work your way down.

If I can stress one of the responsibilities in particular: read Responsibility 6: Assessment.

Responsibility 1: Outcome

The Outcome is the specific challenge that you are working on.

Example: For a hypothetical, wearable device company, this might be that they want their customers to become more healthy in the long-term by being more involved with their wellbeing (by using a step-counter-&-heart-rate-monitor).

This responsibility is defining the cause and updating it as needed. This is critically important because it is the core from which all other responsibilities stem from. The people doing this work will need to find a balance between keeping The Outcome strong and well defined, yet fluid in the face of change.

Typically called: Steering Committee, Executive Team

Responsibility 2: Context

Context is the space that the idea exists in.

Very often this is a research team that defines the scope of the idea, the “users,” and knowing the boundary conditions surrounding this space. The people responsible have to unpack the trends and possibilities, but most importantly understand the populations which the idea serves.

Typically called: Research, Service Design

Responsibility 3: Mechanics

Mechanics are the specifics of the idea that enable The Outcome in the right Context (do you see how everything builds off of itself?).

Typically this is the engineering going on behind the scenes be it spreadsheets, hardware, coding, technique, etc. Generally this responsibility also involves intellectual property and produces the nitty-gritty details that are described in the copyright, patent, trademark, or trade secret. Rapid prototyping in this role is a must. Very often the term “differentiation” is associated with this role (or “secret sauce” if you like tasty jargon).

Typically called: Engineering, IP, Production

Responsibility 4: Aesthetic

Aesthetic is all about how the Mechanics resonate with the people in the Context.

This responsibility is focused on the meaning that people ascribe to the idea. This team understands who those people are, and how to engage them best. Usually, Aesthetic is attributed to what the idea looks like, but not always. This work uncovers any changes that might influence The Outcome, which is a good thing. It keeps The Outcome relevant. This could be both outwardly focused on the ‘users’ however can also be focused inwardly on the team.

Typically called: UI, UX, Marketing

Responsibility 5: Dynamics

Dynamics study the use and usability of the idea.

This responsibility is all about getting the product or service to where it needs to be, observing, and developing an idea to better fit: Question, Observe, Develop, Repeat. What is important to understand is that while Aesthetic and Mechanics try to create a specific interaction, Dynamics studies what is actually happening. It implements the insights gained by the Aesthetic work. In many cases Dynamics is paired with the Context responsibility to create a “Research and Development” team.

Typically called: R&D, Sales, Experience Design

Responsibility 6: Assessment

Assessment is about checking whether the Outcome is actually happening — and what else is being accomplished.

Taken to an extreme, this team checks that the Outcome is being met with respect to laws and regulations (FDIC, CPSC, FDA, etc). It also looks at the tangential consequences, be they positive or negative. This responsibility involves holding the others accountable.

Unfortunately this responsibility is oftentimes ignored, which brings up morally questionable problems: Juul and child marketing, Facebook and depression, Amazon and warehouse abuses, etc. Even otherwise successful companies do not do this responsibility justice, and it is easy for fast moving teams to neglect it. We cannot stress enough to put people first, or at least somewhere in the top 3 priorities.

Typically called: Testing, HR, Finance

So do you have everything covered?

Getting teams right and structuring an organization well is really difficult. When done wrong, the structure is like an ill-fitting piece of clothing that makes your team uncomfortable and doesn’t look good. With the wrong structure in place:

  1. Manufacturing takes a long time to respond to changing demands,
  2. “Innovation centers of excellence” become a hobby shop for other divisions,
  3. Individual teams neglect the bigger vision for short term gain,
  4. The whole organization begins to wither under new regulations,
  5. And so on and so forth.

Does any of this sound familiar? Usually poorly aligned teams are the cause behind symptoms such as: slow communication, unnecessary competition, unclear mission, and ideas being developed in isolation. Sometimes this leads to teams leaving the organization and creating spin offs.

Ideally, we’ve given you some food for thought and a useful method to design cohesive, high performing teams. Follow this framework, make sure that everyone is where they need to be, and all will be well.

Stay tuned for Part 2! The process to creating an amazing team that is perfectly aligned to the ecosystem you exist in can be crystallized using a design technique called Stakeholder Mapping.


Curious ruminations on human-centered design, by Amplifi Design and friends

Thanks to Paricha 'Bomb' D.

Yuri Zaitsev

Written by

Is an ethnographer and designer who studies how people hold onto a quickly spinning world.



Curious ruminations on human-centered design, by Amplifi Design and friends

Yuri Zaitsev

Written by

Is an ethnographer and designer who studies how people hold onto a quickly spinning world.



Curious ruminations on human-centered design, by Amplifi Design and friends

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