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Building an Intentional Organisation: a Holistic Approach

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Building an intentional organisation requires a mindset that considers all organisational building blocks holistically. Leadership is key; actions that managers take have organisational consequences which need to be aligned to design an organisation that can achieve its purpose.

Sergio Caredda spoke about organisational design and building an intentional organisation at Stretch Online 2020.

Too often, we approach organisation design as if we can buy ready solutions off the shelf, Caredda said. As an example, he mentioned the implementation of agile software development methodologies across many organisations:

Just getting a few teams to practice agile does not make our organisation agile. Why? Well, think how many companies have agile development operations, but still run on a traditional budgeting process, that requires gated investment approvals. Or consider how incentives and remuneration policies are seldom adapted to the need of having a much flatter hierarchy in an agile environment.

Each organisation needs to define the leadership mode that is right to carve the unique design necessary to achieve the purpose of the organisation, Caredda argued.

An intentional organisation is not perfect, but it continually looks at how to improve seeking consistency beyond internal silos and departmental fractures, Caredda said.

InfoQ interviewed Sergio Caredda about designing intentional organisations.

InfoQ: What’s your view on designing organisations?

Sergio Caredda: I think that Organisation Design is a sort of misunderstood practice. In many organisations, everyone does bits and pieces of it. Managers produce and update organisation charts, functions design processes, IT creates data flows and enterprise architecture documents, and HR is often called to support in this or that change project. All these actions are seen in isolation, though, and not aligned.

In an ideal world, instead, all functions would cooperate in designing the organisation so that its fabric becomes consistent. Organisation Design competencies would be spread around the organisation, and every manager would understand the organisational impact of their decisions.

InfoQ: How does an intentional organization look? What is it that makes it intentional?

Caredda: What I described as an "ideal world" is what an Intentional Organisation would look like. It’s not a specific organisational model, but rather an organisation that has reached a harmonic and evolving relationship between all its components.

Let’s just give an example. An ideal organisation would have full alignment between its operating model (which is the way systems, processes, people and technology work together) and its enterprise architecture (which illustrates the way data and information flow across the organisation). So when an enterprise engineer embeds a technological innovation and alters the architecture, they will make sure to think in terms of impacts on the operating model.

InfoQ: What role does leadership play in organisational design?

Caredda: In my view, Intentional Design is, above all, an act of deliberate leadership.

For me this translates into recognising that each person in the organisation continually takes decisions that have organisational impact. Think of the manager who decides to sabotage the performance management process, or who decides to hire more diverse candidates, or who establishes a new bureaucratic rule, or who chooses a new software without changing a process, or who designs office spaces.

All these actions have organisational consequences, but too often are taken without this in mind. This produces a number of emerging features that are mostly misaligned. So often leaders who claim to have created flat organizations end up discovering layers of internal bureaucracy and hierarchy which were never intended.

I’m not advocating for one specific style of leadership. Actually, in my research, I have found over 150 different leadership models. All have their advantages and shortcomings; it depends widely on the context.

InfoQ: How can we foster sustainability in organisations?

Caredda: In the context of the Intentional Organisation, sustainability has a broader meaning than what is often intended. For me, it is the capability of the organisation to last in order to achieve its purpose.

This happens by interpreting in a new way the relationship with the ecosystem of which the company is part. Distinguishing between environment and ecosystem is essential here; we are all part of the overall environment, but it is only in the ecosystem that we develop ties and relationships, and that we can indeed act upon.

This means creating awareness of our entire network of stakeholders, and an understanding of the flows of meaning that support those relationships.

We always assume that financial value dominates these relationships, but we know this is not the case. Why does a customer choose our product? Why does an investor buy our shares? Why does a candidate apply to one of our jobs? Why does a supplier connect to work with us?

Recent years have seen the development of many marketing initiatives, in the form of branding exactly to support some of these "meanings". This is only a partial response; we need to understand this issue needs to become part of the design of our organisations.

Creating positive flows of meaning ensures the creation of long-lasting relationships, helping the creation of anti-fragility.

When Corporate and Social Responsibility are only departments within an organisation, you always end up with the suspicion that it’s mostly a make-up topic. When instead it becomes part of the survival mechanism for the entire organisation, it becomes one of the assets of the internal consistency we most need.

InfoQ: What can be done to increase the capability of innovating in organisations?

Caredda: Innovation is a topic that many organisations get wrong. Most books and articles focus on the need to foster creativity. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has instead experienced a different problem: the difficulty is often in experimenting and implementing new ideas. And the reason is invariably related to organisational choices.

A typical example is when a frontline employee gets a great idea to improve customer service. How do you get that idea to flow through the organisation and reach the right decision-makers? Organisations are designed to limit innovation decisions to very few people, and bureaucratic layers limit the flow of new ideas to the top.

A truly Intentional Organisation accepts that innovation is as much organisational experimentation as it is the discovery of new products or services. You need to create internal sense-making mechanisms for new ideas and ensure that people across the entire organisation are allowed to innovate.

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