Questions clients ask me #1

1024 683 admin

How Do Organization Design Projects Get Messed Up?

It’s a funny thing, but when it comes to the subject of organization design the first question clients usually ask me is: “How can we not screw this up?”

Not unreasonably, clients recognize how unsettling these projects can be. They know that, too often, the results can fall short of expectations, so they want to minimize disruption and increase the odds of success.

Here’s the single most important thing a career of designing structures has taught me: it’s not the process that will trip you up, it’s the human element. And humans tend to repeatedly fall into the same traps, despite the lessons of history. Here are 5 of the big, and avoidable, ones:

#1 “Men are Moved by Two Levers Only: Fear and Self Interest”

Napoleon Bonaparte knew a thing or two about human nature. I sometimes reflect on this when clients allow a process to unfold almost to the end of a project and then, just as final decisions are being made, begin furious debates over the pros and cons of various details. What brought about this sudden sharpening of interest? They start to realize the potential impact of the proposals (on themselves!) and spring into action trying to reshape the outcome according to their worldview. Then, having more than runout the original timeline, they expect overnight implementation, as if the rest of the organization will have no objections and behave any differently.

Antidote: Ensure the most senior person (e.g. CEO or head of BU) is actively engaged from the start with a commitment to generate and maintain attention. Set up a small core group with the legitimate power to make final decisions where no consensus is forming.






#2 What The Eye Doesn’t See The Heart Doesn’t Grieve Over

This is all about power-distance relationships and conflict avoidance. Organization design often starts with grand ambitions and an open agenda, but when the implications start to affect those close to the person in charge and the conversations could become difficult, compromises often result. Those impacted a few layers deeper into the organization don’t seem to cause the same level of consternation for some reason! But wait, this just leads us into problem #3….

Antidote: This is a tricky one, but bringing impacted seniors leaders into the process early on, helps them to see what’s coming, ensure their voice is heard, and understand how the answer was arrived at, even if they don’t like the final outcome.

#3 Beware Butterflies

Yes I know, the Butterfly Effect has been commonplace in chaos theory since, well, a long time ago, but the phenomenon of a small change in a local system having large effects elsewhere is as true of organizations as any other system. I recently had a conversation with a CEO who told me they were looking to achieve significant changes in their employee base, but that the senior structures were just fine, thank you very much. But if you make changes deeper into the organization without, in turn, adapting the structures above then you are heading for distorted spans of control, out-of-whack supervisory burdens, and a worse ratio of senior leader to other staff costs. And why wouldn’t you take the opportunity to look around as well as down? See problem #2….

Antidote: Look beyond the tasks being analyzed and be led by the data. Ask how work is connected across the organization, what are the cost ratios and spans of control? Follow the chain of effects up, down and across the organization.

#4 Broken Rearview Mirrors

It’s hard to believe that many people come into work determined to deliberately do something stupid. And yet, after having consulted with hundreds of clients over my career, I am sorry to say that rearview mirrors frequently seem to get broken when new leaders take up position. This is particularly the case in respect of how work gets done. New leaders will look aghast at how things have been done in the past, and confidently map out how much better things will be done in the future under their uniquely enlightened guidance. Then months later, it may turn out that the reason things were done as they were beforehand was to accommodate the legitimate and specific needs of that time. Maybe it is time for change, but maybe not. History counts. Structures and processes are complex webs of tasks – they take some unpicking to understand.

Antidote: Take the time to understand history, before jumping to conclusions about what needs to change.

#5 Everyone has a best friend

You know when you’re bursting to tell someone something and you say, “Don’t tell anyone, but….”? Before you know it, of course, that person says to their best friend, “You’ll never guess what I heard, but you can’t tell anyone, …..”. And so it goes on. Seniority does not automatically make one better at keeping the lid on things. So, despite the initial goal of most organization design initiatives to keep the work secret until the final decisions have been made (quite reasonably because of the potentially disruptive effect of people knowing only part of the picture), it’s unusual not to hear the distant sound of organizational drums beating ever louder with gossip about the worst possible fears of what might happen.

Antidote: Take control of the message and manage it right from the start, rather than allowing the game of telephone to dictate what people hear. 


Next time your company plans to initiate a redesign, taking account of these traps will go a long way to reducing risk of failure. If you need help, let’s chat. Redwood Advisory Partners has considerable experience of supporting organizations through the design and implementation process.

Follow or connect with Stephen on LinkedIn (where you can find other articles in this series) or visit our website at You can contact Stephen direct by email at [email protected] 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Sign Up for Our Latest Thought Leadership Emails

Sign up to receive regular updates on when we post new articles and content!