One Direction, Multiple Directions? Does it matter?

This is a new beginning for ODF, our new website, consistent, clearer, and cleaner. This new start focused my attention on the question of where are we in the Organization Design world? In the four years I’ve been on the Board of ODF we have seen dramatic developments in the availability of professional associations devoted to our field. In addition to the whole host of complementary and related groups there are now three not for profit community based associations who specifically have organization design at the heart of their purpose, Organization Design Forum (ODF), European Organisation Design Forum (EODF), and Organization Design Community (ODC).

In response to the changing environment, ODC arriving out of the academic community with its publication ‘Journal of Organization Design’, ODF decided in 2014 to refocus who its target audience was towards the practice of OD. As a board we felt better able to develop and shape our attention to the practical application of Organization Design, something that our community has been crying out for. EODF has focused towards community building and development in a continent with much to offer but so often overshadowed by the dominance of the USA world. Essentially the focus in Europe is creating a connected community in order to progress the field – and EODF is doing remarkably well at this with sell out conferences and a whole host of country groups created from a standing start only a few years ago. In our EODF recent board meeting in Rome, Italy (it was a tough decision to locate the meeting there…) we would have done well to recognise our high degree of success, as well as focusing on ‘what else/next’.

So, for ODF, if the focus is practice – what is important to the practitioner? We have joined a coalition of organizations lead by ODC developing standards for Organization Design courses and a practitioner register. This is something that has been lacking for so long and has led to misconception and poor representation of our field in the past with the term ‘Organization Design’ being liberally applied to a whole host of change management methodologies and approaches. This isn’t a criticism of any particular method, more an observation that if we as Organization Design Practitioners are not clear on what Organization Design is then we cannot expect to be taken seriously because the definition is opaque. You might say that you know, yourself, what you mean by OD and are clear. This is fine, but what I am referring to is the need as a wider collective to be clear. This means no one organization can monopolize. We must collectively work together, and in doing so, create clarity for others to understand and to connect with for their work.

Of course, setting standards for practice is all very well in environments of certainty and where hard measures are easy to define. If you’re a structural engineer then the laws of physics do not change and, therefore, design is an exact science with calculations and formula giving you the answer. Fortunately, Organization Design is far more interesting and unclear! Essentially, because we are designing for human beings and against/with competitors/partners who have a terrible habit of thinking for themselves, making it fastidiously difficult to be clear what is the correct answer in Organization Design terms. Rarely have I seen one size fits all (although there are OD methods that appear to suggest this – as yet I am waiting for the independent unbiased empirical evidence on this), which means methodologically it’s a bit like the London Tube map. There are a whole host of ways to arrive at your required destination, however without good research beforehand you might find yourself on a line with a destination station closed or where a strike is planned and, therefore, you’ll be rerouted to an alternative.

Now, imagine yourself in the same situation but there is no Tube and you now have the possibility of using the River Themes, taking the bus route, the over-ground rail, a taxi, a bike, or simply walk. For me it feels like this is where we are as an Organization Design field, not only is there the conventional map with a number of ways to arrive at your destination, there are an infinite number of methods of transport and routes in addition to this and these appear to be growing exponentially – much quicker than the available academic evidence to support them. In many respects I am glad colleagues are working on how to create the baseline for OD courses. Glad because it’s a big ask as the world continues to diverge around us and the individual capacity to be creative with organizations manifestations appears to be infinite.

The demand for Organization Design has, in my view, increased and continues to do so; the future for the field is bright and interesting. Is the challenge, therefore, to have clarity at the same time as still having safe spaces for new, untried, and developing practices? If this is so, have we got the correct support mechanisms in place, can we do more to bring together divergent views, accepting differences whilst maintaining and developing professional integrity of the field?


Comments, suggestions, questions welcome!


Stuart Wigham


Showing 2 comments
  • Diana Larsen

    Thank you for articulating the rich “terrain” of Organization Design and the ways that some areas have been well-explored and defined and others remain open for new discoveries. I am also excited about the opportunities that lie ahead for us as practitioners, for our colleagues in research, and for our organizations as we collaborate to define the field, the practice, and, most of all, the as-yet-unexamined questions that pull us onward.

  • L.J. Lekkerkerk

    Interestingly, the renewed or intensified interest in OrgDesign seems to coincide with 1) an increase in work being done by organized networks and 2) a more dynamic environment leading to a state of permanent reorganizing. So, organisation design needs a development towards network design. And, for the second observation, we might need a concept to design a self-reorganizing or self reconfiguring organisation. (here organisation refers to a task to be done or a goal to be reached, that needs more than one person, so the division of labour and the coordination of the various contributions is required and thought through (= designed) before the work starts, otherwise I’d say there is no design but tinkering, experimenting, prototyping).

    By the way, don’t think to light about engineers. Even with unchanging laws of physics engineers sometimes enter uncertain areas. E.g. the first aircraft faster than the speed of sound, behaviour of materials & artifacts in extreme conditions (deap sea, on Mars), so engineers have their own complexity, including taking into account an unpredictable human operator.

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