Org design

Imagining an Alternative Future

You cannot re-design an organization without thinking about the future.

Professor Georges Romme (University of Eindhoven) has an elegant way of putting it. He says that design is “inquiry into systems that do not yet exist”.

This holds true whether we design an organization from scratch or whether we adjust an existing organization.

Even in the latter case, the adjustment is based on assumptions about the future (e.g., whether customers will continue to buy our product, or whether the same technologies will continue to dominate).

But there are at least two major challenges with designing for the future.

The most obvious one is that the future is uncertain. We know what we have today (or at least we can collect information and find out what we have). So with the right tools and techniques, we can optimize based on the current situation.

But there are many scenarios for how the future will pan out. How can we design an organization when we don’t know what will happen?

The main proposal here is that we design a flexible organization, one that can adapt to different circumstances (e.g., see this blog post).

The second challenge is a psychological one. The current situation dominates our thinking. We have become accustomed to the way the current organization works.

It takes effort to imagine that the organization could look differently. We may even suffer from so-called “status quo bias” – we are emotionally attached to the present and afraid of change.

There are many strategies and interventions have been proposed to counter these challenges. 

I find Russell Ackoff’s idealized design approach particularly intriguing.

His basic idea was that we should design the organization from scratch, rather than extent the present model. But at the same time, he did not advocate that we should try to predict the future.

His recommendation was that we ask ourselves what the organization ideally would look like, if it was designed anew today.

According to Ackoff, we do this by formulating a set of specifications, just like we would when asking an architect to design a house for us. For an organization, the specifications may be the overall mission, broken down into more detailed requirements or desired outcomes (also see my recent blog post on unit mandates).

Once we have a common understanding of what we want, we can then gradually introduce constraints so that that it becomes a model that we are able to implement.

See this video (duration: 28 minutes, it’s part of a series) for further information. I would guess that the video is from the early 1980’s – but Ackoff was way ahead of his time – this is really “design thinking”!

By the way, Ackoff recommended the same approach for education. He didn’t like the use of case studies, for example; he said that they only lead to discussions about superficial features of existing organizations. Here too, his proposal was to ask students to design ideal systems instead of modifying existing ones. 

However, I don’t think idealized design is the best approach in all situations.

It seems well suited for situations when performance is far below expectations, or when there is a radical change in strategy, triggered by external changes. In these situations, it may be necessary to start from a blank slate and re-imagine the whole system that you are dealing with.

But the majority of re-designs occur in fairly well-managed organizations and in situations with only modest strategic shifts. Of course, we should still try to come up with a future-oriented organizational model, but we may do that improving or reconfiguring the current organization rather than by starting from scratch.

But even here – for a more limited area (say, a particular unit or business process), one can still generate more creative solutions by asking what the ideal solution would be and by working backward from there to the current situation, instead of extrapolating from the current situation into the future.

I would also add that even if we use idealized design, it does not imply that we can ignore an analysis of the current organization. As I mentioned, even Ackoff agreed that you have to (gradually) take into account technical and practical constraints to find a solution that you can implement.

Being future-oriented does not imply that you ignore the current realities, only that you temporarily free yourself from them when thinking about potential solutions.

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