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Don’t forget the people

Updated: Nov 29, 2023

February 5, 2021 Partnership for Talent

Have you had to pivot your business strategy in 2020? Almost every organization has. Some organizations have had to drastically contract or change course to simply survive. Others have had to grow exponentially in a rapid timeframe because suddenly what they offered was in huge demand. Still others have been able to maintain their business progress according to their plans, but with their employee base being 100% remote. Regardless of how, you have likely needed to shift some component of your strategy to keep up with the changes that 2020 brought.

Have you found that despite clearly communicating the new strategy, things seem to keep slipping back to the way they were done before? Or that your teams have been unable to adjust quickly enough to a new way of doing things? Can you not understand why people just don’t get it? Sometimes this is hard to put your finger on, but what you can feel is that is just seems hard. Beyond the hard of being in a pandemic, beyond the hard of having your business turned on its head, beyond the hard of needing to rethink an entirely new way of doing things.

Here’s the question, did you completely rethink your organizational design as part of your change in strategy? Not just the organizational structure, but the job design and employee practices as well? If not, your old organizational design could be dragging you back to fulfilling your old strategy.

Here’s the analogy, you and 20 of your closest friends are navigating your way through a beautiful mountain trail on a warm sunny afternoon. One person was charged with mapping the route, another with bringing snacks. Everyone is dressed appropriately for the weather and the journey. One person has been put in charge as the leader to make sure that everyone is having fun and has what they need. Suddenly, out of no where a blizzard begins. Within minutes there are 6 inches of snow on the ground with no end in sight. Someone shouts out “ok, change in plans, we are headed cross country and over the ravine.”

After about 10 minutes, the person in charge cannot understand why everyone is still travelling as one big group, when it would make much more sense to split up into smaller groups to navigate the blinding snow and ensure no one gets lost. People begin to get hungry because the person in charge of the snacks did not account for the fact that the trip was going to be much longer due to the snow and food needed to be rationed differently. And as they approach the ravine, some people begin to panic because they are unable to swim and the roles as to who does what to ensure everyone gets safely across the water have not been assigned.

Now this is a somewhat silly and extreme example, but the premise is there. When the strategy changes, all components of the organizational design need to be rethought, or the old design will continue to pull you back to fulfilling the old strategy. This means looking at the design of jobs, the organizational structure and the employee practices that underpin it all. As you look at these components you may find that some of them will work for the new strategy and some need to be rethought. The goal of each of these is ensuring that the broad organizational design is proper to support the people being successful.

Here’s a real-world example, before the pandemic a restaurant did both dine in and takeout business. Because the needs of both types of customers were different, they had split the employees to focus on each one independently, training each group of employees on the key aspects of what customers expected when they dined in and when they ordered and picked up. As part of the state’s closing guidelines the restaurant was forced to go to 100% take out. Fortunate enough to maintain its pre-pandemic level of business there was a need to shift all employees to focus on serving take out customers. Because the restaurant had not realigned job design or training practices to the new reality, dine in employees were unsure of what was expected of them in their new roles. And because prior to the shift to 100% takeout there was both a dining room manager and a takeout manager, dining room employees who are now serving takeout are unsure if they should seek out the assistance of the dining room manager or the takeout manager when they need support.

I once had a professor who said that the organizational design should align with the organizational strategy. I had another that said the organizational strategy should take into consideration the organizational design and capabilities. The answer in both cases is yes. The organizational strategy and the organizational design are inextricably linked, which means that when one changes the other needs to be reexamined. 2020 has forced huge numbers of organizations to examine, rethink and change their strategies. Unfortunately, many of them have not ensured that the broader organizational design remains aligned with the new approaches. Forgetting to align the organizational structure, job design and employee practices with the new strategic reality will at best cause the new strategic direction to be less than successful, and at worse drag the organization back to fulfilling the old strategy.


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