Danny Rehr
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Organization Design Matters

Organization Design Matters

May 29, 2022

Photo by 愚木混株 cdd20 on Unsplash.

When working dynamics seem off, we tend to appreciate them in a conjectural manner. I love how Brian J. Robertson puts it: “The human capacity to sense dissonance in the present moment and see the potential for change…” [1] Typically, we identify activities or performance for deficiency, because those are the effects over which someone must have control, right?! (Sadly, we'll even point the finger.)

Closely accompanying are ideas for fixes given incomplete information. I am as guilty as the next person. Knowing enough to be dangerous describes me very well, in fact. But do we really know how something went wrong? Will our perceived fix really provide resolution?

Process Development

John Hunter, in his guest post for The W. Edwards Deming Institute, Managers Must Understand that Blaming Employees Doesn’t Help, points to a few process-based solutions all of which effectively amount to process development. To paraphrase and ‘bulletize’:

  • Mistake-proof through validation.

  • Generate standard operating procedures and/or work instructions.

  • Alter processes and procedures.

  • Effectuate continuous improvement mechanics. [2]

Process development is an excellent way to shore up procedures that breakdown. However, there is something even more fundamental upon which those processes are based. Without adjustment, process development addresses symptoms and not the underlying issue.

Many if not most of us do not take organization design into consideration.

Organization Design

…organization design refers to the formal system of accountability that defines key positions in an organization and legitimates rights to set goals, receive information, and influence the work of others. [3]

Robert Simons is the author of the above quote and the following one. “The best [organization] designs must take into account a business’s strategy, its life cycle, its competitive environment, and any number of other factors that may be relevant.” [3] It doesn’t get much more elemental than that, and process development doesn't go that deep.

An organization must be built to execute on the business's basis for existence (mission, vision, values, etc.). I wrote about the basis for existence in my post, Scaling-Up Personal Ambition. When an organization isn’t designed to meet its purpose, execution exhibits flaws in efficiency, direction, morale, associations with other firms, and certainly culture. Even more complex, when conditions change, the organization's design must do so, too.

Photo by Erik Mclean on Unsplash.

A simple example, imagine a car with only 3 wheels. ‘Pretty tough to get from Point A to Point B. More practically, imagine a car without a gas gauge. The car drives well until it doesn’t. Now imagine a car without antilock brakes in a snowstorm. The car can slow and stop, but conditions would make it so the brakes do not operate well enough for safe stoppage. Would inability to optimally operate be the fault of the driver who's operating the vehicle (process driven, no pun intended) with the missing wheel, gas gauge and antilock brakes; or the car’s design?

So the next time one of your coworkers makes a comment about poor organizational communication, or lack of accountability, or ‘the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand’s doing’, etc. think first to the fundamentals. Organization design. Is the organization/department/team designed correctly to get the job done? Thereafter, process-based solutions may be even better implemented.


[1] Robertson, Brian J. Holacracy: The New Management System For A Rapidly Changing World. Henry Hold And Company. Apple Books. https://books.apple.com/us/book/holacracy/id939621800.

[2] Hunter, John. "Managers Must Understand That Blaming Employees Doesn’t Help". Deming.org, 2021, https://deming.org/managers-must-understand-that-blaming-employees-doesnt-help/. Accessed 27 May 2022.

[3] Simons, Robert. Levers Of Organization Design: How Managers Use Accountability Systems For Greater Performance And Commitment. Harvard Business School Press, 2005, pp. 2-3, 17.

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