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Leading by design

I’ve been sharing with you over the past few weeks my experience from the Executive Program for Nonprofit Leaders which I recently attended at Stanford University. You might recall my posts on storytelling as well as persuasion and communication, two topics that are absolutely crucial to leadership.

A third leadership theme which emerged on a number of occasions throughout the course is that of organisational design.

Organisational design is the discipline by which the inner workings of an organisation are aligned such that they support its mission and strategy, and deliver results. Simply put, it’s about creating an environment for success.

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Professor Sarah Soule summarised the elements of organisational design with the acronym ARC: Architecture – Routines – Culture.

  • Architecture

The architecture of an organisation includes both its structure (Who is in charge? Who answers to whom? What is the span of control? How tall/flat is the organisation?) as well as its incentive systems (compensation, evaluation, promotion and retention).

In my view, the role of a leader with regards to architecture is also to find the right balance between authoritative vs participative leadership. Inviting and considering people’s ideas in a participative way is important to generate engagement and creativity, but there are times when directions are welcome and necessary.

  • Routines

The routines are the protocols to deal with uncertainty, the norms about decision-making and the day-to-day shorthand rules. They also cover how work is done in an organisation and the informal communication channels.

  • Culture

Culture is often seen as the ‘end game’. For example, we hear of ‘best place to work’ organisations as having a ‘great culture’. It inspires people to do their best. It includes the shared beliefs, values, norms, rituals, stories and symbols of an organisation.

Leaders should create a culture that facilitates discoveries. But for this to happen, we must give failure its right to be. As Bill Barnett explains in his post The Nonconsensus Strategy: “In many organisations, the fear of being a fool is stronger than the hope of being a genius.” This fear of failure can unfortunately lead people to keep secret their ideas. So allowing a bit of ‘foolishness’ can support innovation, creativity and who knows, perhaps even visionary thinking!

Designing an organisation such that its architecture, routines and culture are aligned, congruent and all in service of the strategy, is key to achieving results… and ultimately, excellence – whereby the same results occur even when one’s back is turned.

An important role of the leader is to create this environment for success, make sense of where we come from, where we are and where we’re going, and provide strength and direction that will inspire others. A wonderful challenge…

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