Mayvin_Organisation Design_navigating complexity

Organisation Design: do what you can and know when to stop

Mayvin Associate Geoff Roberts describes his experience of working with the complexity of large scale Organisation Design projects.

When I read Sarah Fraser’s blog on Organisation Design, ‘The map must be wrong’,  I was reminded of one of my own experiences navigating the complex territory of large scale organisational change. An experience that reinforced one of my mantras for our practice.

The story starts the day I walked into my then boss’s office to announce that I had passed my Masters in Organisation Change. Never one to shy away from the obvious, he first congratulated me and then asked, “So what did you learn then?”  How to summarise two years of study and practice into a nutshell or two? At the time, my answer seemed slightly trite:

“Do what you can, where you can, when you can.”

In my experience, too often an enthusiastic young practitioner produces a plan (usually ‘of attack’ – dreadful metaphor) and some consultant’s project manager/director ‘drives the plan forward’ unconscious or uncaring about the emerging reality; usually with poor results. They have neither the bravery nor the bonus-induced incentive to reflect deeply on the emerging organisational landscape and the people operating within it so they can amend the plan in the interests of a batter outcome. Doing so would surely offer them useful information about how to move forward more productively.

In one major change with which I was involved, the client had commissioned a large consultancy to analyse why a cost-reduction exercise was ‘going wrong’ and to suggest some key interventions to ‘get the programme back on track’. A desk study in the hands of recently graduated MBAs took place and the client was offered and accepted three largely unrelated projects.My team and I, as internal change agents, were to work with these consultants to deliver the projects.

Two started well, but in the very initial stages of the third it became apparent that not only had the lead player in the company not been involved in or consulted about ‘their’ project, but they fundamentally disagreed with it, produced believable data to refute the analysis already undertaken, and announced their own proposals for change that were designed to deliver more than the consultants’ proposals. Whoops!

Despite this the consultants ploughed on as if their jobs depended on it (they didn’t, but their bonuses did) until about a month into the project when I discovered that the manager’s reservations and alternative proposals had not even been presented to the steering group for the project. This is where we internal change agents need the ear and protection of someone very senior – so that we can tell another side of the story in complete confidence, and that is what happened. The externals were called to account for why they had not disclosed the manager’s own proposals nor the apparent weaknesses in their analysis.

The roadmap was flawed and the company (unlike the consultants) had the bravery to temporarily (in the end, permanently) abandon a key workstream because it had become clear that there was neither appetite nor the original case for the suggested change. A brave move, but one which ultimately strengthened the resources available in other areas of change and which also strengthened the workforce’s perception of the steering group.

We took our resources elsewhere, somewhere where there was active support for change. My mantra played out in practice, and has done many times since. The time and place need to be right and the people willing (or genuinely persuadable) if we are to embark on successful OD/change efforts. My glib response turns out not to have been so glib after all:

“Do what you can, where you can, when you can”

Geoff Roberts is a Mayvin Associate and works with people in organisations to catalyse effective change. He has worked as both an internal and external change agent.