Mayvin Advisory Board

The Mayvin Advisory Board Tackles a Wicked Problem

It’s a daunting prospect chairing a meeting of the Mayvin Advisory Board. It’s not that I don’t know stuff, or even that I haven’t done OD for real and sometimes done some good work.

Never mind that among the three Directors there are two Masters degrees and a doctorate – all in relevant subjects. Add to that the two experienced and distinguished external advisers, Phil Mix – with strong NTL credentials and Linda Holbeche a leading thinker and author on HR and OD, it’s hard to know what my role is, how I can contribute…and I am supposed to chair the meeting!

And then it gets harder. The primary topic is organisation design. In my mind that’s a topic that requires a certain amount of technical knowledge as well as a firm grasp of OD principles and practice.

I decided to confine my contribution to listening carefully – checking that we are using our time well and occasionally testing my understanding as a way of summarising what has been said and to establishing what has been agreed.

The discussion focused on a current Mayvin assignment. A large NGO – a global organisation with a clear strategy that requires new structures and a different operating model at country, regional and global headquarters.

The complexity of the organisation and the constraints of the opportunity to intervene led the conversation toward a couple of critical questions:

1. How do we use the limited opportunity to make a long term difference? How could we, as an external agency, shape the speed and trajectory of change when we cannot be present to influence the changes and events that are required?

2. What are the critical elements of effective organisation design interventions that should guide our approach?

In and amongst the detail of the dialogue, there were two emerging themes:

A. The need for a systematic process for changing structures and operating models. The work results from the formulation of a global strategy, one consequence of which is a centrally initiated global programme for changing organisation structures and working practices. The change needs to deliver some defined, consistent outcomes. Things the organisation has to achieve. This is not a suitable area for unstructured, emergent methodologies.

B. For countries and regions to adopt a new operating model and the changes in practice that these will require, the change process has to take into account the culture, political topography, current capabilities and existing relationships and personalities. Above all the process has to be inclusive and involving of ‘the people
on the ground’ that it will most affect.

So the work will have to reconcile these conflicting and paradoxical conditions and provide:

  • Real ‘local’ involvement and autonomy to make relevant decisions whilst ensuring global consistency and compatibility.
  • A structured process for designing and implementing new organisation designs and ways of working whilst supporting devolved decision making, planning and implementation.
  • An integrated programme that requires different approaches, skills and behaviours with different components (leadership, teamwork, the org. design process) being delivered by separate providers with no history of working together.


I’m pretty sure these ingredients constitute what Heifetz called ‘a wicked problem’. There is no formula, no nice package that will provide the answers. There is no neat solution to be worked out by being clever and experienced (even though the Mayvin Advisory Board abounds in cleverness and experience).

  • Some of the ingredients Board Members identified were:
    Knowing the core requirements of the strategy, structure and operating model and what is and is not available for question and change
  • Providing a structured process that will generate the right questions at the right time
  • Identifying and developing the skills needed by those involved in design, planning and implementation
  • Creating a dynamic process that involves the people affected, giving them a voice
  • Creating a process that integrates the multiple strands of this complex change process (including the leadership and teamwork interventions)
  • Being ready for what has not been planned for or anticipated

The ability to grapple with wicked problems depends most on curiosity, co-operation and courage. They show up in a willingness to formulate and raise awkward questions, to move toward and look beyond the conventional solutions without knowing exactly where it will take you.

What emerged clearly from the discussion was the excitement and shared appetite for finding a practical and wise approach to a large and complex set of challenges. I left the meeting struggling to grasp the complexity of the work that Mayvin will contribute to and grateful that my role as chair requires no more than the ability to do just that – to listen to and make sense of what the Mayvin Advisory Board has to say.