Baila Goldenthal, Cat’s Cradle/String Theory, 2008

The Problem with Organization Design

Part 1

By Dara Blumenthal, PhD and Nathan Snyder

While many organization design approaches attempt to account for multiple dimensions of the organization, there are few reliable and construct-valid frameworks, methodologies, prescriptions, or intervention techniques that don’t reduce the human being in the design and implementation process.

In other words, most organization design approaches simplify the individual, the person, to a complicated system of interacting parts for employment and deployment. Some of those parts are used at work, others are not. Our humanity is reduced to a transactional role, a function of a system, for regulation by policy and reporting lines. Follow the path, climb the ladder. This systems-view ignores the enmeshed relationship between personhood and the requirements of our work, as well as the complex tapestry of social conditions, technology, cultural diversity, privilege, and power.

On the other side of the coin, an organization can’t be reduced to just subjectivity. An organization isn’t merely a solipsistic exaggeration (think: founder’s syndrome, cult of personality, groupthink). Nor is the organization a self-aware social singularity, leaving employees differentiated as ‘futuristic cogs’ to autonomously ‘energize’ their roles. Nor can organizations just be tinkered with to idealistically evolve and unfold, moving and adapting to the dynamic conditions of the market.

While we are being a bit hyperbolic here, it is vital to have a sophisticated understanding of and productively engage with this binary — the complex individuals and the organizational system that employs individuals — in order to create an organization design that is continually resilient over time. Any approach that can hold only one side of this dialectic in its sights, at any given time, will never produce effective, long-lasting, generative, and empathetic results.

We’re not talking about the organization of anthills or flocking starlings — they don’t need our help to organize. (The help we could offer them is our protection, but that is for a different post.) In order to enact an organization design that truly serves, humans require much more complex and dynamic thinking, radical openness and vulnerability, and deep feeling, with broad-view observation and sophisticated socio-cultural understanding.

While our systems of making knowledges and ways of being can be influenced by the insights gained through our human-animal relations (e.g. studying how Starlings flock) (thank you Donna Haraway), they are not the whole answer.

They are especially not the answer if they are being inserted into meaning-making systems that are indebted to less holistic, less relational, and highly disembodied forms of making knowledge and understanding (which includes much of the Western Philosophical Tradition, Enlightenment thinking, and a scientific method that demands strict ‘objectivity’). This is important because those systems largely operate through fundamentally oppositional assumptions of the world (e.g. that it is stable and observable and can be rationally mastered, and not that it is uncertain, emergent, and mutable). It’s like trying to determine the state of Schrodinger’s cat without opening the box. That is just not how it works.

Put simply, we need to be very aware of how we’re bringing concepts together in order to arrive at any ‘new’ and lasting result in human organization. This is the time of more critical thinking and greater understanding, not less. If any solution seems too simple to implement, it probably is.

Arguably, one of the most damaging myths in our society is that people don’t change as adults. We haven’t been socialized to seek out and live change everyday. Rather, we have been conditioned by dominant social norms to grow towards adulthood, but not how to grow up as an adult. For many, change is a negative thing, something to resist and fear. Due to this, change is still very hard in our society, it takes work and courage but it is exceedingly possible.

Furthermore, the reduction of human systems to animal systems doesn’t account for the changing constructions of knowledge through our lives, nor the development of complex thinking and relation that happens among and between human groups, including in adulthood, where we spend the majority of our lives. Additionally, it most likely misses out on the most vital element of those animal systems, the deep embodied knowledge — the knowing through doing, being, interacting — when processed and applied through overly rational and simplistic lenses.

The state of organization has reached such a level of complexity, that only through becoming aware of the knowledge and meaning making process emerging within these human systems, can organizations be built to face higher order problem sets, such as the ones we’re facing today. For example, where our organizational structures cannot cope with the speed at which the world moves, the educated global citizen, and the unceasing flow of information and data.

The resolution to organization design challenges cannot be found solely through looking at birds flocking. Rather, only through experiencing and understanding humans, being, together to get complex work done, can we evolve. It is from this complex and nuanced understanding that we can forge new ways of organizing in and of the world we live in today. This is why our work is grounded in the human and behavioral sciences.

At Nature of Work we have developed a method of organization design and development, strategy and facilitation, that uncovers the optimal organization from the people who bring it to life, while not discounting the deep structures that impact how people develop, and how organizational institutions have historically formed.

Read more! Part 2: Getting before and beyond the Firm and Part 3: Laboring While Human

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