The Two Sides of the Organizational Design Coin

Consultants interested in the future of work love talking about complexity and technology. We like to think about organizations at the levels of systems and networks and structure. It’s grand and all encompassing and lets us draw pretty diagrams and make grand sounding pronouncements. It’s all very exciting and (sometimes) useful but I worry that it’s easy to lose sight of the most complex aspect of it all — the individual human beings who make up these systems and inhabit organizational strucures.

Thinking only about teams, departments, structure, and organizations at the expense of the individual impoverishes our overall understanding of the systems we’re dealing with. At the same time, focusing only on the individual narrows our perspective to the point that we’re missing the larger picture of what happens when individuals form organizations. In terms of organizational design, focusing only on the structure can result in systems that are absolutely optimized for making an impact, but the individuals who are supposed to embody those systems are not capable of doing so. The infrastructure is there but the individuals meant to drive those systems are incapable due to a lack of skills, an unwillingness to try something new or any number of reasons human beings can act unpredictably. On the flip side, focusing only on the individual can create people who are energized and capable of doing great work but are mired in terrible structural or environmental situations that sap all that potential. The people are great but the organizational world they inhabit crushes them.

All that being said, I worry sometimes that we lean too far toward thinking and talking about structure and in doing so lose sight of the individual. The best consultants and the best organizations will realize that these two approaches are opposite sides of the same coin. They each need the other in order to work.

To what extent are we helping people get better at managing themselves? At helping people understand and handle the emotional aspects of work and change? Are we doing a good job at looking at the individual characteristics that affect how a team interacts and works together? Are we talking about how to evaluate the level of trust that exists between individuals — and how to improve it? What about facilitating a sense of psychological safety within a team or organization so people feel safe enough to try new things? Even things as seemingly simple as whether people know how to use their tools effectively, or how well they’re sleeping, or whether people can keep track of their current ongoing projects or responsibilities?

These questions operate at the individual level and if we don’t think about them carefully our best laid structural and organizational plans will be wasted.

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