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Why redesigning the organisation isn't always the answer

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Focusing on redesigning organisations to embed learning or foster innovation isn't the answer

Understanding what is ‘wrong’ in organisations has rarely been a challenge. HR leaders spend an inordinate amount of time working out how to gather data from surveys, focus groups, and informal conversations by the coffee machine. And then we spend even more time working out what to do with it.

As an executive education provider we get feedback from our research and clients – both solicited and unsolicited – on what needs fixing in their world regularly. And in the Management Agenda 2016 research more than half of HR respondents (55%) report their leaders lack the ability to foster a learning culture and support the development of employees.

An embedded learning culture is critical for an organisation’s ability to navigate complexity. Add to that leaders’ struggles with fostering innovation and creativity (reported by 51% of HR in the Management Agenda), and we see a significant gap in leadership capability.

What seems to happen in many instances is that this gap in expectations around culture and the behaviours that support it is translated into a question of how to change things that relies on the (re-)engineering and (re-)design of organisations, in isolation from the behaviours themselves. That is an absurdity.

I have seen many instances where leaders have re-arranged the furniture, but the same conversations and behaviours persist. The common factor is the unwillingness of senior leaders to model what it is they want to be different.

Let’s take the ‘fostering creativity and innovation’ thread. In a recent workshop with Michael O’Keefe from Innovation Beehive he talked about the key factors in creating an innovation culture. Two of the things mentioned were the ‘institutionalised yes’ and ‘permission to fail’. Both of these typically rely on leaders and managers having a greater tolerance of being challenged, to shift their default from why something won’t work to why it will. It's one thing to advocate this as a good idea, but another to consistently change behaviour so that the experience in the organisation is different.

Creating a learning culture means thinking about organisation design in a way that attends to the quality and frequency of interactions between people, noticing the patterns of behaviour as they (hopefully) change, and amplifying or dampening those as necessary.

So re-design away, re-structure away, but be clear on what specifically you want to see more or less of as a result, from whom, at all levels, and how you are going to explicitly link these expectations of soft (behaviourial/cultural) change to hard (structural/technical) change. The pattern that I regularly observe in organisations – typically from the most senior levels – is one of intentional denial of the existence and/or link between these different domains.

One of the most common examples of this is when organisations espouse the need for greater accountability and responsibility, and pay attention to things like HR processes, underperformance protocols and training to ‘embed’ these, but shy away from addressing the root causes of dysfunction, which more often than not lie in an unconscious fear of having constructive conflict that starts at the top of an organisation and undermines any design work that has gone before. It is not either/or it is both/and.

Because soft is the new hard, and you need both. Always have done, always will do.

Steve Hearsum is senior consultant at Roffey Park Institute