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Management Kits - Organizational Design Thinking

Given the semantic affinity between organization design and design thinking, it is surprising that so little has been written on applying design thinking to organization design – even more so, because design thinking has long grown beyond classical product design and has moved into fields like innovation management and even strategy.

Design thinking has successfully established itself as far more than just another management fad. It has also proven a flexible and useful set of tools – actually principles – for application in various goal-oriented endeavors, to change the material, technological, or even social environment. Management is no exception.

How can design thinking be applied to organizational design: how can principles, approaches, and tools from design thinking be applied to organizational design work?

To answer that question, it is helpful to first contrast the classic understanding of “organization design” with normal assumptions about “design thinking”.

Organization design and design thinking: a tale of two management ideas

“Organization design” in management typically means design as a grand plan. Using that term, an organization’s design is the one-best-answer resulting from a rational, almost engineering-type process.

“Design thinking”, on the other hand, concentrates much more on the activity of designing, focusing on proven design practices leading to viable results. While many different branches of design thinking exist in both academia and practice, common denominators would include a focus on users, an attentiveness to the designing process – including an openness for iterations, tests, fast failures, and learning – combined with room for, and an active fostering of, creativity as part of that process.

In short, “design” focuses more on the result and its attributes (without much detail about a certain messiness of the process), while “design thinking” is very much about the process of creation, trusting that this is where great results are made – or missed.

More practically, what does it mean to apply design thinking to organizational design? For a start, here are two initial propositions to help guide this progression; these are particularly important for us when we build management kits:

1. Take a human-centered approach

Human-centeredness (user centricity) in organizational design means paying attention to the fact that an organization is defined by interplay of the ‘formal organization’ and spatial arrangements on one hand, and ongoing social construction of organizational members on the other. “Users” of the organization are its members, who must work with others in a particular, “organized” way to get the job done. A user-centered design is thus a set-up of the formal, material – immediately ‘designable’ – organizational elements that earnestly tackles its members’ objectives (or at least is not in their way).

Take the org chart, for example; it is not much more than a simplified representation of the organization. This simplification is both useful and problematic: useful, as it allows organizational users, in the best case, to understand how division of labor is set up in the org; problematic, as it conceals key interfaces necessary for a successful cooperation. User centricity means that you design your organization to balance org chart simplicity with a more holistic design, providing people with mechanisms and contact points for cooperation across organizational silos, to drive strategic objectives.

2. Try early and often – test your organizational designs

Second, the benefits of prototyping in product design are equally relevant to organizational design. Prototypes are low-cost, safe-to-fail experiments in a controlled environment that provide opportunities for learning and generating new ideas. Translated to the design of organizations, prototypes allow tests of an organizational setup, before it is live.

For example, one can do dry runs of organizational processes, e.g. in a workshop setting, to uncover missing process steps, information needs, or required capabilities. Taking processes “off” the neat representation of a thought-through, but abstract, process map and making them tangible allows for actual, real-world experiences that facilitate fast learning and improvement early in the design process. One of the great advantages of this approach is that it bridges the classic gap between design and implementation right from the start.  

Special focuses on the “user” of the organization and multiple benefits of organizational prototypes are just two of many organizational design thinking features that guide our work at management kits. We will continue to explore design thinking and its relevance for organizational design in future blogs and welcome your thoughts and ideas.

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