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An Empathetic Approach to Designing Robust Organizations


The ugly secret, not so secret truth about designing organizational structures is that many organizational design/redesign efforts fail. Most do so because there is a lack of understanding of what the organization truly needs and what motivates people to do their best work. In other words, most organizational redesign efforts are embarked on with little effort to holistically understand the existing conditions, the vision for the organization and what truly is keeping the people in the organization from achieving that vision.


Not all challenges can be solved through an organizational restructuring, and this is the primary caution we give all our clients based on our two decades of experience in this field. However, taking an empathetic, human centric approach to organizational design can provide insights into what can best be structurally addressed to optimize the performance of the organization and its people.


Design Thinking provides a successfully proven method for implementing a people centric and empathetic approach to designing organizations. It consists of breaking down the organizational design process into the following key steps:


1. Empathize: Start by understanding the needs of the organization and the people who will be impacted by the organizational restructuring. It is important during this stage to take time to establish a holistic understanding and assessment of the current state of the organization, the problems driving the need for change, and what the change is in service to i.e., ultimately what is the vision that the organization is trying to achieve through the org design effort. During this stage it is also important to not only identify all the key stakeholders who will be impacted by the redesign, but also how they might be impacted, what their current state is, and what their needs and motivators are. An empathy map can be a great tool to guide the collection of the data about the impacted employees and other stakeholders through interviews and surveys.


In our experience, organizations often want to rush this stage, but we believe that this is the most important part of the organizational design process. The work in the Empathize step allows you to set aside your own assumptions and gain real insight into the organization, its people, and their needs. This inclusive and empathetic move helps stakeholders understand the motivations driving the change and goes a long way in helping them feel supported and encouraged—which ultimately guides the success of the new org design.


2. Define: This step is about analyzing and synthesizing the comprehensive data that has been collected in the previous step to articulate the dominant problem statement (or statements). For example, we were doing an org redesign project for a mid-sized technology company that had initially requested our services because they wanted to grow the business and felt that their org structure was too hierarchical and was inhibiting that growth. However, our analysis of the data that we had collected during the Empathize step revealed that the primary challenge was not the hierarchical structure and the layers, but the fact that the organizational functions were very siloed thus inhibiting the flow of information, collaboration, and effective decision-making. The re-articulation of the problem statement helped us design a structure that allowed us to address the client’s initial request of making the organization less hierarchical, and at the same time the dominant problem of reducing siloes between functions.


3. Ideate: The goal of this stage is to identify as many ideas and possible ways of addressing the problem statement(s) that have been identified in the previous step. Particularly early in a design project, ideation is about pushing for the widest possible range of ideas from which you can select, not simply finding a single, best solution. The determination of the best solution will be discovered later, through testing and feedback. During this stage, we spend majority of the time brainstorming with our clients on possible design criteria and guiding principles that the new organizational structure should abide by to address the needs of the organization. The emphasis during this stage is rapid brainstorming and close collaboration to generate many alternative ways to view and solve the problem, and to achieve the organizational vision.


4. Prototype & Test: Once you have the ideas collected about the type of organizational structures you might want and the criteria and principals that would address the stated and unstated needs, you start the process of experimenting or prototyping. Using the ideas generated in the previous step, the goal is to come up with multiple scaled-down solutions to investigate those ideas and how well they address the defined problem statement(s). In the work of organizational design, it’s the exercise of coming up with a variety of org charts and models to consider, evaluate and even test out in a controlled manner to check which ones best meet the needs, realities, and constraints of the organization.


It is also important to know that Design Thinking is an iterative process. This means that as you get more clarity by evaluating and experimenting with multiple different prototypes and possible solutions, it might lead to the redefinition of the problem statement(s), the desired goals and the guiding principles identified in the previous steps. The goal then becomes to continue this iterative process until you feel confident that the feedback and input from the key stakeholders have been sufficiently addressed in the final solution.


Designing organizations is an art and a science. An inclusive and empathetic approach to org design positions organizations to evolve their operations and transform their enterprises in a way that serves their needs, mission, vision, and people.


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