Questions clients ask me #8

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Organization Design for Early Stage Valley Cats

AKA The 1-Day OD Project


Silicon Valley is a get-it-done-fast world that has led the development of many new ways of thinking about how to operate a business. Design-thinking, crowd-surfing, hackathons and agile development are examples of common tools used by rapidly growing tech companiesto cut down the scale and time it takes to build products and win customers. Is there an equally swiftapproach to organizational design that would supportthe metamorphosis from early stage to full-on growth in the tech world? This article focuses on 5 questions that cut to the core of organization design, and that may provide a path to an hyper-accelerated process – the 1-Day Organization Design Project:

  • What is the problem you are trying to solve?
  • What is causing the problem?
  • What is in scope for discussion
  • What options should be considered?
  • How should youproceed?

More depth

Early stage companies, especially in the tech world, don’t tend to spend a lot of time thinking too long about things – they are all about rapid forward movement. So, I shouldn’t have been too surprised when a friend, the CHRO of one of these companies, rang me to ask for advice about how to frame an organization design process for them. For most established medium to large companies this is a thoughtful, systematic process that usually takes 2 to 3 months. But if you’re a Valley Cat and thinking about organization you may be thinking that a 1-day workshop is more than enough to figure it all out, tops.

In my head I found myself thinking of some lines from a ‘70s song by the Alley Cats, Nothing Means Nothing Anymore:

Nothing means nothing anymore
So close your eyes child and lie on the floor
And pretend what you feel is really real
And know what is real is what you feel.

For a moment, this seemed like a pretty good basis for framing a workshop that would tap into the leadership team’s vibe. Given they had so little time to think and debate objective facts and observations, why not just focus on exchanging biases and perceptions, and go from there? Alas, my role in life is to help, not carp. So as I pondered the challenge a little longer it became clearer to me that answers to a few fundamental questions might help define the problem they were struggling with and set them on a path to reach a solid set of conclusions. A one-day workshop to set the course of action might just work after all. Those fundamental questions struck me as a sound basis for any company looking to kick-start a design project and, indeed, to potentially start and finish in a single day. So here it is, organization design in a day!

Session 1 – What is the problem you are trying to solve?

Obvious, I know, but also worth spending time on. A clear understanding of the problem that is shared and agreed upon goes a long way to avoiding reversals, long debates and intriguing rabbit holes once the problem solving starts. To know if it’s specific enough to be useful in guiding the thinking, four questions need to be answered:

  • What is the problem?
  • How do you know it to be true – what evidence to you have that this is a problem?
  • What impacts result from the situation that make this worth fixing?
  • What are the relative types and scales of those impacts i.e. how would you rank order and categorize the importance of fixing them

Session 2 – What is causing the problem?

An agreed problem statement is a good start, but knowing the causes of the problem will breathe life and urgency into the activity of solving it and is a necessary condition for success. Organization design is like sailing the ocean – knowing where you’re going and how you are going to get there is a lot more effective, motivating and less anxiety-provoking than just setting sail and wondering if the winds will help or hinderyour progress. Just as there are four major global wind systems that sailors need to account for, there are four basic causes that affect the direction that discussions should take:

  • A lack of clarity in roles and responsibilities
  • A sequencing or bottleneck issue with how business processes flow across activity sets
  • Ownership of an activity or process being placed in the wrong part of the organization, i.e. a reporting line issue
  • Having the wrong people in roles because skills needs are changing or there is a mismatch in some other way

Sorting this out can save a lot of time – hey, it might not be an organization structure issue after all!

Session 3 – What is in scope for discussion?

Time is short, so keeping the focus on relevant topics and avoiding meandering conversations about interesting pet peeves is important. Define what is up for debate (and what is not), in terms of what should be included and, more importantly excluded in the following areas:

  • Functions, processes, business areas
  • Geographies
  • Roles and levels in the organization hierarchy
  • Topics e.g. structure, metrics, rewards, culture

Now the boundaries of discussion have been set, it’s time to look forward and consider what changes should be made to overcome the problem.

You thought sessions 1 to 3 were painful? This is probably a good time to take that overdue coffee break!

Session 4 – What options should be considered?

At this point you are either freshly caffeinated or feeling post-prandial effects, but it’s time to ask the question of what should be done about things. In the world of ambiguity that characterizes much of organization design, there will undoubtedly be a range of choices about what changes should be under consideration. And to make it possible to make choices between options, it’s well worth thinking through the pros and cons of each of them, if acted upon.

This is where the proverbial stuff hits the fan or the rubber meets the road (insert your favorite metaphor here), as attendees wake up to the fact that you are actually talking about making real changes to the status quo. Those changes will inevitably mess with some aspect or other that impacts one or more of the attendees. This is when otherwise rational, intelligentexecutives start to use their exceptional talents to redirect choices to other areas in response to their unspoken fear, anger, or uncertainty about what this might mean for them. As Leo Tolstoy said, “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no-one thinks of changing himself.” This is where having clear and decisive leadership in the room and the work done in Session 1 to develop a rank order of relative importance come into their own.

Session 5 – How should you proceed?

The heat generated in Session 4 will, hopefully, have dissipated somewhat as we move into acceptance mode. The prior session should have settled on a single option or a hybrid one made up of the best parts of several.

So this final step should be a reality check: are there any risks that will need to be mitigated in moving forward, what will be the people implications of the changes and how will they be managed and communicated, how will you measure the changes to know if they are having a positive impact and solved the problem that brought the group togetherand, finally, what steps are required to implement the changes (and who has the job of implementing them)?


And that is your one-day organization design workshop. It will be a long day, thatwill need some preparation to help ensure there are some solid, fact-based, reference points to help keep things grounded in reality. There may still be some work to do at the end, but it will have been a day well spent, with a solid and useful set of outcomes and increased alignment across the leadership team.

Time for drinks and some relaxation. You earned it.

Next time your organization is planning a redesign, ensuring the preparation is done, a purposeful approach is in place and leaders are prepared will determine the likelihood of a successful outcome. If you are initiating a project and we can help, let’s chat. Redwood Advisory Partners has decades of experience supporting clients through the design and implementation of organizational transformations.

Follow or connect with the founder, 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]

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