Org Design

Building Communities, Not Companies (Part 2)

Org Design

This is why it is so important to construct our consulting role as one of guidance. We aren’t here to teach people how to work, we’re here to facilitate an interaction with the world that results in them discovering better ways of working.

When I was a guide in Boulder, CO, we spent a lot of time talking about how to manage the complexity of moving over vertical terrain with a client. Our job wasn’t to get someone to the top, it was to facilitate a safe adventure that expanded the client’s understanding of the landscape and of themselves. It was to walk alongside them as they discovered new things and to provide context and to manage hazards so that they could do this in relative safety.

This is a strong metaphor for what I think the best way to support teams as an org designer is. Never to mandate change, but to help provide relative safety and wider-lens context for understanding the value of doing things in a more adaptive, agile 😉 way.

Which brings me to my next point. I think that part of the failure to properly install philosophies such as Agile into non-technology teams is that the pedagogy for Agile relies (understandably) on the rhythms and needs of technology teams (not to mention its difficulty in those settings). We we try to port lessons from this realm into non-software organizations, we immediately run into a clarity issue. We owe it to the teams we support to think more creatively and sympathetically about their needs than to simply say, “this has revolutionized something else, so it will make things better for you!”

Emergent, adaptive decision making patterns are present in any number of life pursuits. Org designers should be empathetic and seek to explain these ideas on the terms of the teams we’re supporting. This means an active dedication to expanding our recognition of and ability to discuss self-organization in the world around us.

As organizational designers, guides, and consultants success depends heavily on our sensitivity and empathy. As we get to know a team more and more, we have to understand their culture and cadences. Teaching styles that are effective in a classroom full of college freshman may feel pedantic or condescending to a team of mid-20s marketers, and may be inspiring to a group of management professionals at a conference. We have to understand, respect, and respond to the teams we’re supporting.

In a recent internal interview, I was asked to define culture. I said that my working definition was that it is the way that the organization responds to the challenges it faces. So if we accept that, then we have to be very observant of how a team deals with tight deadlines, changing requirements, or difficult operating conditions, and then we can form some understanding of its culture.

I’m sure that this is one of the more debatable aspects of what I’ve said, but I’ll return to an example from one of my earliest experiences training as a guide. Eric DeBurg, my course instructor, told me a story about a guy who was this badass 5.13 Gunks climber who had failed to pass even low level AMGA certifications because he didn’t take the time to understand the needs and vision of his clients. He wanted guiding to be a way for him to get paid to go up hard routes, and failed to respect that it is in fact a way to share the vertical world with people who might struggle on 5.6.

A good rock guide helps people find adventure where they feel safe enough to enjoy it. A good organizational designer is empathetic to the background of the team, and should try to make it safe for them to explore and operate on a level that is appropriate to them. Learning doesn’t happen when people are scared or confused.

When we remember that we’re supporting teams of human beings in service of a transformative vision, we find astoundingly effective organizations. It is of fundamental importance, however, to recall that the measures of effectiveness are not themselves goals. Profitability and revenue numbers are by themselves not capable of inspiring or guiding–we owe it to our teams to offer more than that. Most people want to have an impact, to know that they matter to their community, and as organizational designers, we have the opportunity to deploy systems capable of returning on that desire.

If we’re careful, and we respect the human aspect of what we’re doing, we can begin to build something beyond profitable companies, or effective organizations, or award-winning innovation labs. We can coax into existence communities that people are actually excited to be part of.