Organisation Design without the drama

Blog posts

28 Jul 2015

The Vice Chancellor has to restructure the faculties of Arts, Humanities and Performing Arts into two faculties. This means ‘Scoping synergies using robust but flexible procedures’… In other words - someone's for the chop

BBC Radio 4 Afternoon Drama, Higher: Episode 2 Restructure by Joyce Bryant

Sharon VarneySharon Varney

Whether you call it reorganising, restructuring, redesigning, or something far more creative like ‘scoping synergies’, more HR professionals are becoming involved in organisation design work.

Turning three into two ‘using robust but flexible procedures’, as described above, is rather a tall order. But, sadly, those kinds of demands are not confined to afternoon drama. Indeed, HR professionals might well find themselves confronted with a similar, highly confusing mandate.

The first rule of organisation design is DO talk about organisation design1

One of the problems surrounding organisation design is a reluctance to call it what it is. Sure, there are lots of sensitivities around organisation design work. But reaching for politically acceptable euphemisms doesn’t help. If we shy away from calling it what it is, it becomes more difficult to recognise when we are involved in organisation design work.

So, let’s be clear, if you are tinkering with structures or ways of working, you are involved in organisation design. You are changing how the organisation works. Therefore you need to understand what organisation design is, the challenges you are likely to face, and how to address those challenges.

The first rule of organisation design is DO talk about organisation design, so we can all be clear about what work we are engaged in.

Beware the Jabberwock, my son!2

There is a lot of nonsense talked about organisation design goals and objectives. Like nonsense poems, some of the words seem to make sense, like ‘scoping synergies using robust but flexible procedures’, but actually it doesn’t make sense at all. Unintelligible jargon is not uncommon.

"It's time to revamp and reboot our 'Outside the box' relative contingencies"

"We're going forward with our plans to implement optional policy projections"

…and my personal favourite…

"We need a more contemporary reimagining of our total reciprocal programming."

Thanks to the Plain English Campaign’s Gobbledygook generator for those! But I think you get my drift… As Lewis Carroll advised, ‘Beware the Jabberwock, my son!’

So, if you are doing organisation work, you will need to cut through any jargon and nonsense to clarify the objectives of the work – in plain English.

‘The Matrix is everywhere… It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth’3

Organisation design work is often hidden behind closed doors. This creates an artificial reality which divorces planning from implementation. Plans often work better in the artificial reality than they do in the real world. Yet, it is in the real world that those plans deliver value, or not.

That brings us back to the first rule of organisation design – DO talk about organisation design. Talk about organisation design with those affected. Involve them in co-designing new ways of working. Hiding the process doesn’t remove the sensitivities, it just increases the uncertainty.

HR professionals can remove the drama from organisation design by cutting out the euphemisms, banning the jargon, and opening the doors.


Further Reading

HR Essentials: Organisation DesignOrganisation Design: A framework for thinking about your own approach

This new paper from Sharon Varney highlights five key challenges of organisation design and offers ten practical tips to help HR professionals to navigate those challenges.

This is the third paper in our HR Essentials series - a new series of concise papers for busy HR professionals and line managers. HR Essentials papers are available exclusively to IES HR Network members for three months after publication.


The PalaceThe Palace: Perspectives on Organisation Design

Sharon is also co-author of this popular IES report on Organisation Design, now available free as pdf.




Annual HR Conference: Organisational DevelopmentOrganisation Development

Thursday, 1 October, 2015

Sharon is running a workshop at the IES annual HR conference, which this year focuses on Organisation Development.

Link pointerFind out more and book a place



[1] This refers to the quote from the 1999 film, Fight Club: ‘The first rule of fight club is don't talk about fight club’.

[2] From Jabberwocky, by Lewis Carroll

[3] A quote from Morpheus in the 1999 film, The Matrix