The Problem With Organization Design: Part 5

Human Centric Management

Nebulous 04 © Mark Dorf

By Dara Blumenthal, PhD and Nathan Snyder

It is evident the field of organization design has become increasingly influenced by a humanist approach to thinking about management yet, it has done so mostly outside of the fields of adult development.

If you are sensitive to the popular literature on management you will notice an increasing trend away from Taylorism into teamwork, collaboration, values, mindset, or some other human centric imperative. (With self-organization and flat, self-management at the furthest end of the spectrum.) You’ll notice in this literature an attempt to recover the human and its relationships from the mechanized management structure once used to scale industrialism of the 1950’s.

What’s more, this signals a broader response to the nonlinear, complex, networked world we live in. Whereas we used to think of organizations as machines and production lines, there is now a mandate to begin to deeply reconceptualize organizations along these networked lines. The shift to the human trend gets us to the beginning of the conversation but by no means is it complete or even requisite to the modern conditions of organizations today.

On the whole, as a society, we’ve yet to adequately update our understating of human development (nor, in many cases, our own ability to employ systems thinking to reconcile human development with behavior-change and psychodynamics). If we want to build organizations to act as generative financial living systems, not as manufacturing lines and factories, then we need to employ systems thinking in every single aspect of our organizations, including the humans operating them. Indeed the ability for systems thinking in and of itself is acquired through our human development. It is not something you can simply decide to ‘do’ but rather a cognitive development that follows on from the mastery of logical thinking.

Consider how this differs from the current aims of organization development and design.

Organization development looks to enhance the effectiveness of the organization through its people, process, and practices, whereas organization design is focused on providing a holistic structural metaphor to reconcile the implicit and explicit components of the enterprise. Organization development deals with “human elements” while organizational design deals with how to organize “structural components” of the organization as a whole.

In both instances, these definitions contain static notions (i.e. not systems thinking) which reinforce one another. While these are our simple definitions, our concern is the practices of these fields are too frequently related with and accomplished in a similar, simplistic fashion.

Humans are not structural components, nor are the actions and behaviors people manifest to get work done. To reduce humans in organizational design and development efforts to a sum of their behaviors, in order to meet a new standardized norm, is no better than managing people based on boxes in an organization chart or like SKUs on a retail floor. In the same breath, human minds do develop structurally and until each field begins to uncover the human developmental dimensions of their efforts, both fields will not be able to adequately evolve to, let alone accomplish their human centric notions of management. We’ll just end up with more of the same status quo.

Similarly, most orientations to workplace psychology focuses on the effectiveness and wellbeing of the individual and team without an adequate understanding of the structures of adult development nor the operation of the whole organization. These fields are overlooking the need to fundamentally reinterpret or at least update their versions of the human itself. While we may be able to design new structures, processes, practices, and teams these are too frequently designed with an outdated and outmoded conception of the human, of the self, of the worker, and of the team.

We need to reimagine the nature of work.

Just like Google had reached a point of diminishing returns of its existing organizational design, such that it needed to reorder itself structurally to transform into Alphabet, humans also go through structural developmental change. (This is not state change, like water into ice — it is a molecular transformation, a reconstitution or refactoring of the very makeup of the organization.) If Google would have just tried to increase efficiency gains on the bottom line it would never position itself to grow beyond its existing profitability models. Google’s strategic ambitions pushed it into a new structural ordering which will eventually impact the micro interactions each and every employee of the organization has with their work. Similarly, if we keep trying to organize and develop people without an appropriate understanding of their developmental status we will never know if they need to make behavioral and/or developmental structural change in order better contribute to their team, their organization, and their own growth.

When we discuss developmental change we are talking about human change as significant to a person as the Google to Alphabet restructuring was to the organization.

Ever hear of this thing called the midlife crisis, or now more popularly the quarter-life crisis? These cultural memes point to people’s inability to develop or structurally accommodate to the life conditions they face. Sometimes breakdown is the only way to rebuild; but there are better ways to accommodate people, through the organization’s structure, beyond pointing to the classic burnout (or boreout) emergency exit.

We’re amidst the greatest cognitive revolution in history. We have inherited organizations that were built to remove variables from their systems. However, the environments organizations compete in now are more complex and more varied.

Today, people and their tools need to meet the demands of these environments in ways organizations were not designed for — in ways we were not educated for.

This doesn’t mean we need to simply adjust the hierarchy, become more agile, or go through another training. Treating the symptoms is the same outdated strategy as trying to remove the variables.

Read on to Part 6, where we conclude this series by showing how human development can be reconciled with organizational reinvention.

Read the whole series: Part 1: The Root of the Problem, Part 2: Getting before and beyond the Firm, Part 3: Laboring While Human, Part 4: The Need for Deliberately Developmental Organizations, and Part 6: The Nature of Work

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