Organization Design Challenges


Nicolay Worren, Jeroen van Bree and William Zybach conducted a survey to identify the most important challenges in re-designing organizations (OD). When I saw this article, I was very interested in these findings as it appears to me that this might be much more a practically-oriented consideration (compared to a lot of other articles in the Journal of Organizational Design which are clearly more theory-driven). During our education, we studied a lot of books from Burton, Nadler and Tushman and many others to learn about elements of an organization. But they hardly told us about the main challenges in planning and managing organizational re-design processes. Additionally, based on my own experiences, I feel that challenges have significantly changed in recent years as organizations are today facing a lot of challenges. We see how business is changing so rapidly and often we cannot find the right answers to these dynamics. 


So, therefore reading the aforementioned article, I was very interested in the view of the authors and if their results matched my own recent experiences in organizational design. The purpose of their project was to get a better understanding of the challenges facing practitioners. They conducted a survey among 176 consultants. Worren, van Bree and Zybach indicated the three following main challenges when we are (re-)designing new organizations:

  1. Creating realistic estimates regarding the time and resources required to complete the project, 
  2. Understanding patterns of collaboration or information exchange across units within the organization, 
  3. Handling the political aspects of the re-design process and helping participants 


Among other key findings, they saw the preparation phase as one of the most difficult phases during an OD project. We often call this phase the contracting period in which we are aiming to create a common understanding among the key players during the upcoming change process. Organization design projects are complex and unpredictable. As a result of a clear contracting phase, many of these projects are completely unrealistic in terms of the time and results which can be expected. As they state in their article, “Most projects are never just organization design. They touch at the heart of strategy, at the intersection of process, technology and people and quickly elevate the urgency / sensitivity to changes and bring to light personal wins and losses”. I fully agree with this statement. Top management can easily feel the need for change, but can hardly have an in-depth understanding about the organizational consequences or precisely about what an organizational design can do (and cannot do) to find the right setting for future business challenges. Above all, top management feels the pain of organizational mismatching too late and therefore often expects quick (and simple) solutions to complex situations – which cannot be matched at all. Under these circumstances, it is of course difficult to create reliable estimates with regards to time and resources. 


Another key finding is addressing the difficulties in analyzing the current organization. OD projects are very often managed by an external consultant. Using external consultants on organizational projects can only work in cooperation with an internal (educated) staff. I often see the problem that if we have a lack of internal organizational development professionals, we might not have access to information (e.g., informal relations, work process interdependencies, and resource utilization) which are extremely important for finding the right strategy during the change process. My advice at this stage would therefore be to all organizations to pay more attention to the education of internal organizational development experts.


When, at the beginning of an OD project, there are often too few internal staff members involved, during the implementation of the new organizational design, we see just the opposite. The authors of the article interpreted this as follow: “Often, clients have spent all their money on design and have never budgeted for implementation and even less so for embedding, and so often the benefits of the design are not realized. Organizations seem to run out of steam. “We should rather not underestimate the effort and expert knowledge which is needed during the implementation phase; designing a new organizational model is just half-way to success”.


Implications for Practitioners


Organizational design projects are complex undertakings. We must have realistic expectations and get well-educated (external and internal) consultants involved in these processes. Designing and documenting just the formal organizational structure are the easiest parts of the game. As the authors say, “The question is whether this is simply an affirmation of the psychological and political nature of organizational re-design processes, or whether consultants can influence the situation”. Without any doubt, there are so many different ways of leading change processes, and they are not equally effective.


I found the findings and considerations of Worren, van Bree and Zybach to be very interesting as it reminds us of the high level of skill that organizational design practitioners need. “They need to be strategic while, at the same time, consider how concepts and ideas are going to be operationalized and implemented”. I would really welcome it if such considerations could lead to more interest in and more empathy towards structuring training programs for organizational design professionals.

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