The Other Side of Strategy: My Path to Organizational Design

I always wanted to be an architect.

As early as four years old, I remember sketching out house plans. While those early attempts likely weren’t much good, by seven I was filling notebooks with drawing after drawing after drawing.

A design for my own house, for other people’s houses, for houses I would quite literally dream about – and wake up wanting to draw.

When spending time with friends, they would want to play school or plan weddings. I wanted to know what houses they wanted to build.

So we took turns. We’d play school for a while. Then I would ask what the schoolhouse they would teach in would look like.

We’d talk weddings for a while, and then I would ask what the house they would live in would be like.  

At seven, there’s still an abundance of curiosity about how the world works and who one another is, so naturally, my friends asked me to show them what I meant and how I did it.

And I did. I drew houses that represented what they said they wanted. They got excited about it, and then they wanted to take a turn.

It was my earliest lesson in realizing that we all see the world differently.

When they flipped their papers back around to me, what I would see was a box in one corner that was supposed to be a bedroom. Oftentimes that’s all it was – a set of disconnected boxes that represented the number of people they saw living in the house.

“Where is the bathroom?” I would ask. “What about a laundry room? How do you get from one room to the other?”

I truly wanted to understand if they envisioned walking between a series of disconnected buildings, and if they thought they would wash their clothes offsite.

My houses had doors, hallways, exterior frames, and a room for everything the people living in it might need. I often used a ruler or graph paper to make sure everything was just to scale, designed so that it flowed, and fit for purpose.

Admittedly, many of the early plans were too large. I struggled to design anything smaller than 4,000 square feet for a long time.

But nothing was missing, and everything connected.

Fast forward about a decade, and I was working in the commercial construction industry – a step I viewed as helping me learn more about the field and how architecture would connect to the houses and buildings that people actually built.

Early on, the director of the Construction Education Foundation learned that I had taken drafting in high school. He put me up in front of a technical school to talk about the importance of hands-on learning and practice alongside theory and book learning.

I was so young and so nervous. I used notecards to help me remember my talk. I’m sure I didn’t project my voice as much as a real speaker needs to.

Despite all the shuffling of notecards and timid approach to speaking, an architect came up to me after the talk and offered me a job. He said, “you know, if you work under a licensed architect in this state for eight years, you can get your license.”

For someone who only had a couple years of real work experience, eight years sounded like an eternity.

I liked my team, I liked my role, I liked the diversity of my work, and I felt part of a community. So I passed.

I was managing a blueprint library at the time, one that I was responsible for converting to digital form as we moved away from fax machines and more basic project estimation tools.

In other words, changing the way the organization operated so that it could keep pace with changes in the external environment that came with the rise of the internet.

My colleagues and I were fortunate enough at the time to work for leaders who developed and communicated extreme clarity in our mission and goals.

These leaders let us operate autonomously in our own areas of responsibility and knew how and when to bring us together to accomplish work that crossed departmental lines.

People who were hired in with 20-30 years of work experience elsewhere would comment on our unique environment. I always smiled and brushed it off. It wasn’t unique to me.

My only real points of comparison were a sandwich shop with an ice cream line, and the small construction office I had come from. Both had entirely different demographics of people and entirely different cultures, to say the least.

Being so early in my career, I took this seemingly seamless culture for granted. To me, it was simply how work was supposed to be: you knew your job, you liked your team and your boss, you handled issues as they came up, you felt supported and challenged, and you got much more done together than you could apart.

You knew why you were doing what you were doing and who you did it for. The extreme focus on who you served and how you could better address their needs drove everything.

Work was a place where people and ideas came to life.

Imagine my extreme surprise when I found out that isn’t always the case everywhere.

Thankfully, my earlier foundation instilled a strong belief in me that work could be that way. Work was the place where I first fully came to life, and I wanted that badly for everyone else.

From that early experience, I would go on to lead change and people initiatives in numerous business functions – from marketing to operations – as well as multimillion-dollar strategy and innovation efforts inside a multibillion-dollar corporation.

I would design roles and teams and trainings and frameworks. I would carve out new business areas. I would see recurring issues – in people or process – and go upstream to figure out how to keep the cycle from repeating.

Along with the experience in construction, I’d work in tech, manufacturing, food, and agriculture. I would work with everyone from small founder teams to companies of all sizes and forms in over 50 countries before crossing into that last frontier: my own practice.

Initially, my practice was about helping people create more connected strategy – so that people in the organization would be more connected to their work, and generally less exhausted by the churn of change.

I’ve always seen strategy as the “whole picture,” and as I’ve continued to practice, I’ve learned so much about how very disconnected from the whole picture it is with the way it is often completed.

Many people start the strategy process with a financial target and review the list of activities they are already doing.

Inherently, starting in this way sets up the plan to be something very short of strategic – but that’s a topic for another article.

For now, I want to talk about why strategy and org design are different sides of the same coin.

If the goal of strategy is to create competitive advantage as an organization, then the goal of design is to organize in a way that the competitive advantage can be achieved.

The design of an organization is what supports that strategy coming to life.

When done well, both strategy and people come to life. Then ideas and innovation can flow. Value can be created – or certainly, not as much value is lost compared to when design is absent.

I’ve never seen the two as separate. If one part of the process is missing, you don’t have an organization that is set up to succeed in the long-run – and you don’t have an organization that is set up to maximize talent in the short-run.

The bulk of my own learning over the years has been to understand how and why people see parts of the process as separate.

The more I practice in these fields, the more I see the design piece missing. And part of me is starting to think that’s because there isn’t enough awareness around what it really is.

It’s not something that is typically talked about in business school – and it hasn’t been talked about widely in business until more recent years.

It’s critical that each of the parts of the visioning, strategy, design, and development process be understood for their own value and for their connectedness to each other – because that is how the full value of the organization is realized.

With that, I’ll end with what organizational design is at a high level. So what is org design?

An org chart is only one small component of the design process. Organizational design takes a comprehensive view at how all structures, systems, work flows, and processes in the organization work together (or don’t) to produce outcomes that matter most.

As Edward Deming said, “94% of problems in the business are systems driven and only 6% are people driven.” Organizational design addresses the whole system and, much like a form of transportation, engineers it so that it can support who it needs to and travel where it needs to once the people are inside.

Organizations that create a greater degree of alignment between the parts of their system experience a greater degree of effectiveness.

They’re able to execute strategy faster, innovate where and when it matters, resolve issues quicker, keep their best people, enhance culture, reduce conflict and silos, eliminate waste and redundancy, better tie outcomes and measures, and so much more.

They have all the doors, hallways, and frames they need to go from one room to the other and do what they are ultimately there to do. There’s enough space to move in key areas, and there are walls to separate others.

They are set up to compete across all the different time horizons they must compete on – core, extension, and new.  

Good design removes some of the tension, complexity, and energy required to complete work across each of these horizons.

And how many things feel more complex and more effortful today?

As Debbie Millman, podcast host of Design Matters, says, “One of the great things about design is that the simpler and the more effortless something is, the more likely it is that thought and energy and design have been put into it.”  

So many of the symptoms and pressures we experience today are because we do not thoughtfully design the systems that hold all of our other activities.  

Thoughtful design and intentional leadership are the two of the key threads that connect vision, purpose, strategy, people and process.

In proactively addressing both, organizations can make work a place where people and ideas come to life.

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