Resilience and the Need for Organization Design

by Molly Penn

We are living in a period of unprecedented disruption – not due to the advent of new technologies or ways of doing things, but because of Covid-19 and the far reach of its effects on virtually every person and every business on which our society depends.

I’d like to borrow a thought from JFK (that was unfortunately erroneous, but poetic nonetheless) – that the notion of crisis holds within it both the idea of danger and the potential for opportunity. Understandably, we are currently hyper-focused on the danger and don’t yet have sufficient information to understand the possibility of opportunity.

How Will This Crisis Affect Us?

There is much we don’t yet know about how the Covid-19 crisis will affect our organizations. The natural tendency is to go to our most dire predictions – we may not be able to stay in business due to the economic impact that is already reverberating throughout the sector. We don’t know the actual answer to that, but it is likely that many organizations will have to make significant changes to ensure sustainability. If and when that happens (and we wish it didn’t have to), it is important to be smart about how that takes place. Enter: organization design.

Why Organization Design?

When you move from one apartment to another, you suddenly notice that your old furniture doesn’t always fit the form and flow of your new space. The same thing happens to organizations when they go through significant changes – either significant growth, or its evil twin, downsizing. It is important to be thoughtful and strategic the design of your new normal – and see it as an opportunity for reinvention in service of your core mission.

What Does the Organization Design Process Entail?

Determine the Scope and Charter of Change:

Establish the “case for change,” desired outcomes, scope, allocation of resources, time deadlines, participation, communications strategy, and other parameters that will guide the project.

Determine Your Future Strategy:

Adopt a client-centered focus:

  • What are your clients’ most important needs that correspond to your organization’s mission? 

  • What, if anything, is unique about your organization?  Where does your organization provide unusual value to those it serves or to its funders? 

  • Which current programs align well with that strategy and which do not?  

Note: the strategy may need to be responsive to how to survive an economic downturn – focusing on the core value provided by the organization and paring back to that core. Or focusing on the possible funding sources to weather the downturn and organizing around those.

Assess Your Current State:

Examine the current structure:

  • How are people organized hierarchically (where does power reside and how concentrated is it?

  • How well does that facilitate decision-making and how well does it utilize social capital)? 

  • What programs best meet the future strategy and which do not meet it as well (use outcome data to assess this)? 

  • How is the organization structured now (around functions, processes, client types, geographies)? 

  • How well does that structure serves the needs of the clients (what is the proportion of direct service to supportive services like finance, development, HR, etc.)?  

  • What are the skills on staff currently and where are they deployed?

Design the New Organization

Defining your new organizing structure. For example, will you organize primarily around functions, processes, client needs, geographies, etc.?  In this new normal of virtual work, it is critical that you visualize the dependencies among functions, not their hierarchical relationships. This will help us break our presumptive “norms” that are rooted in our White Supremacist society. When you adopt a hierarchy- and people-neutral orientation, you are freed up to focus on what the organization does, rather than who is doing it and where the power resides.

  • Determine the systems needed to support smooth workflow in this new model – i.e. performance management systems, resource allocation systems, communication systems (especially for a virtual workforce), information sharing systems. How do these systems need to be reflected at the board level as well? 

  • Streamline core business processes—what are the methods or technologies for getting work done that best support the designed structure?  Which existing processes or procedures are no longer necessary or could be repurposed?  How can virtual work best support the designed structure? Identify support resources (finance, sales, HR, etc.) and where should these should be located.

  • Determine the KPIs and use that to understand the type of talent needed to best execute the strategy.  First examine the roles needed, then examine the people in place and how well they meet those roles. 

  • What kind of culture needs to be built – values, communication, collaboration, decision-making – to support this new design?

Communicate the Change

A communications plan needs to be developed toeducate people about what is happening. Highlight the bright spots in the current design, help people see the reasons for the change and how it will make things better (for them, ideally).  Remember that communication, in this instance, should not be seen as a one-way street. Recruit your core staff in co-creating the mindset shifts that will be important for facilitating the change.  Don’t forget to develop the communication systems that will support and reinforce the new design.

Implement the Design

Now the task is to implement the designed change. People will be reorganized, receive training in the new design, team skills and start-up team building. New work roles are learned or hired and new relationships within and without the unit are established. Equipment and facilities are rearranged. Reward systems, performance systems, information sharing, decision-making and management systems are changed and adjusted. Some of this can be accomplished quickly. Some may require more detail and be implemented over a longer period of time.

 A Parting Thought

Cultivate patience.  Change is hard and there is human emotion around the change that needs time to let go of the old way of doing things, understand the value of the new way, and settle into the new ways of working and being together.  That’s in the best of circumstances – like change to support growth. In the case of Covid-19 there will be trauma that needs to be addressed: around loss of many kinds (friends, family, colleagues, economic loss, future prospects, jobs). Consider the supportive role that mental health and wellness services can play in helping navigate these transitions for your staff – seek out partnerships with organizations that provide these services and could help you serve your staff. Be kind to yourself – this will be hard and often not pleasurable – give yourself the emotional space and support systems to navigate this so you can create the container for others.

We are always here if you need thought partners as you move through this process. This new normal will mean many decisions have to be made and sometimes we all need permission to slow down and make the right decisions – not the quick ones.

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