How to Make Sure Your Organization Is Constantly Getting Better — Part 1

I fantasize about a world where org design consultants are no longer needed.

I’ll finally be able to start my llama farm secure in the knowledge that all organizations everywhere are functioning at peak capacity. In this future world where I spend my days knitting llama-fur socks (do llama’s have fur? wool? I think I need to do some research…) the idea of hiring outside experts to help your organization function better would be bizarre. It would be unnecessary because the skills and expertise needed to improve your organization would be baked into the organization itself. All employees would have the skills and mindset required to be an org designer not because I think everyone wants to do the type of work I do, but because being a great organization in the 21st century requires that everyone sweat the ongoing functioning and structure of their company.

If everyone in your organization isn’t paying at least a little bit of attention to how they work and organize then your organization isn’t functioning as well as it could. Assuming your organization is trying to bring some kind of positive change in the world (by giving people meaningful work and/or creating beneficial products or services) the fact that it’s not functioning as well as it could be is heartbreaking.

If you’re with me so far then the next obvious question is, “What does it mean to think like an org designer?”

There are a handful of ideas that I think are central to this shift in perspective. I’ll introduce the first two of them, in their barest forms, below.

Knowing the Difference Between Working In vs. Working On Your Organization

Working ON the organization.

The first concept you need to understand is the difference between working in your organization versus working on your organization. Working in your organization essentially means doing what you were hired to do. It’s doing the work of moving the organization forward. It’s cranking widgets, answering email, going to meetings, and generally “being good at your job.” In most organizations this is the extent of expectations for the vast majority of employees. “Do what we hired you to do and don’t worry about anything else.”

On the other hand, working on the organization is what you do when you view the organization as a product in itself. It’s figuring out how to improve the roles, policies, and structure of the organization. Instead of going to meetings it’s trying to understand how meetings could be better. Instead of responding to emails it’s endeavoring to understand why everyone gets so much email in the first place and whether there’s anything to be done to make email less arduous. It’s thinking about how people come together to work on teams (and disband those teams when the work is finished and learn from other teams and how teams manage conflict and so on). Traditionally, it was up to “management” or “leadership” to think about these things while everyone else was supposed to be focused on simply doing the work.

Working IN the organization

The distinction between people who work in the organization and those who work on the organization must be blurred now. We don’t live in a world where the select and elite few can spend their time thinking about the overall health of the organization while everyone else does the actual work. Organizations are too complex for that kind of division of labor to work now. Instead of having organizations full of separate “thinkers” and “doers”, the best organizations expect everyone to be a “thinker and a doer.” Everyone must work in the organization and also work on the organization.

An Appreciation for Complexity

The reason we need every employee to be both a thinker and a doer is because these employees need to exist in a complex system.

Unpredictable, many independent agents following specific rules, not micro-managed by an external force.

Talking about complexity and complex adaptive systems is often one of the first things I do with a client before talking about the specifics of their situation. Regardless of the problem(s) we are trying to solve we’re going to have to keep the complex nature of modern organizations front and center. Any attempt to improve organizations and their functioning based on an overly mechanistic mindset is doomed from the outset. That’s because our organizations operate much more like weather or traffic than a finely internal combustion engine.

In a nutshell, a complex system is one in which the individual components follow simple local rules and are not directed by a higher order set of instructions. Complex systems are marked by their unpredictability. These systems cannot be predicted to extreme specificity but we can look at known conditions and information to make general predictions about what will happen (we know it may rain today, but we don’t know specifically when it will start or precisely how much rain will fall on each location).

As we think about how to improve our organizations we have to have an appreciation for complexity. That means we must let go of our intense desire for certainty about everything we do. We must change our gaze from 1:1 cause and effect relationships to understanding how components are connected and constantly influencing each other (basically, if you think your intervention is going to impact only one specific outcome then you aren’t thinking with an appreciation for complexity).

Clear cause and effect relationships, predictable, and therefore repairable by straightforward means.

Leaders have to accept that trying to micromanage the people and teams within an organization is a useless endeavor. Together, everyone in an organization needs to work toward identifying and codifying the “simple rules” that promote the outcomes necessary for business success without trying to dictate the specific path everyone will take to get there.

What’s Next?

These are two of the foundational ideas employees really need to get if they’re going to help craft their organizations to meet the demands and opportunities of the outside environment. Great organizations are filled with incredibly smart people who, under traditional expectations, are never actually tapped to change the system in which they are operating. It’s a waste of talent to not have every single person thinking like an org designer — looking for ways to improve process, to improve structure, to create better environments for great work, to capture tensions that can be channeled into productive change.

The first key is to know the difference between working in and working on the organization and the second key is to have a basic appreciation for how complex adaptive systems work. In Part Two I’ll dive deeper into the human side of thinking about org design — the importance of growth mindset and the power of believing people are fundamentally “good” even without omnipresent/explicit punishments and incentives (and what goes wrong when that fundamental belief isn’t present).

In the meantime, I’m going to set aside the obvious research I still need to do about my future llama-based endeavor and get back to helping all my clients find me unnecessary in the (hopefully) not so distant future.


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Thanks to Ali for the editing help.