Organisational design expert Amy Kates talks to TJ about her work, with particular reference to the challenges organisations face in the post-pandemic environment
Tell us about organisational design and the work you do.
I think of organisation design as the art and science of shaping human behaviour in groups. It helps to differentiate the lenses one can use to look at an organisation. You can focus on the individual level, and levers such as assessment, coaching and training, and rewards. Or you can focus on teams and interpersonal interactions with the goal of creating high-performing or agile teams.
Organisation is a different lens from individual and team. When people ask me what we design, I joke that an organisation is an invisible, abstract, three-dimensional concept. You can’t see it, but when we are in one, it shapes our behaviour. Making the organisation visible and having a shared language and tools for design is especially important in large, complex companies – companies that are operating across several geographies, and that have multiple product and business units. At this scale a focus on teams is not enough.
Organisation design is all about shaping how the parts are meant to effectively come together and connect. This is our work at Accenture.
As an organisational design expert, what is your perspective on the Great Resignation? Why is this a problem now and what does this mean in the short- and long-term for businesses as they seek to retain and attract talent?
The Great Resignation has been building for some time now. The COVID-19 pandemic didn’t create the Great Resignation, but it has been a catalyst for workers to make their concerns known. Lockdowns and prolonged work-from-home realities exacerbated challenges even many successful companies had in a pre-pandemic ‘normal’ operating environment: ensuring employees feel seen, recognised, and connected.
At a superficial level, we design organisations to align resources and energy to deliver on a strategy. But I think of our work as more profound. It’s about creating a system in which the individual can come and contribute their talents to a purpose. It is about creating the environment for identity, community, and collaboration that allows us to make something together that none of us could make alone.
This desire for purpose has always been there but is being pushed by new generations in the workforce. Everyone is demanding more agency over their day-to-day work and seeking more line of sight into how their contributions are helping achieve that purpose.
When you combine these factors, you begin to understand what’s underpinning the volume of talent seeking new opportunities, and the challenges facing businesses looking to attract and retain talent.
Leaders must understand that these issues aren’t going to dissipate, and that their role in creating the work environment is more important than ever. The great resignation is forcing leaders to think critically about their organisations and ask, “have we made it easy and rational for our people to have the right connections and conversations that not only create business value but provide purpose and motivation?”
You talk about the importance of what you call a “hierarchy of focus” and also “reconceptualising the vertical organisation.” Can you provide insight on these concepts and how this new operating model will help solve some of the challenges companies are facing with the Great Resignation?
As we were talking about, the work of senior leaders is to create a clear purpose and direction for the company to enable employees to understand the strategic priorities. This allows people to know where to put their energy, where to invest in building high trust working relationships, and how to make good trade-offs between opportunities. When people have clarity, they can be empowered to make well considered decisions. And in the end, faster, better decisions are what distinguish one company’s performance from another.
Reconceptualising the vertical organisation is about understanding the layers of leadership and the role that each layer has in empowering individuals and teams. The work of the strategic layer is fairly clear. What we often find is missing is a clear and intentional role for what we call the “integrative layer”. These are the leaders a couple of layers below the executive team. They each have their own substantial teams and units that they run. Our focus is their role when they come together.
When this layer of middle to senior management is invigorated and enabled to create the processes, ways of work, decision forums, and behavioral norms that link and connect across boundaries, the energy in the rest of the organisation is unleashed. When the integrative leadership layer works together, the operators and team leaders across the company have the mechanisms to innovate and collaborate. They are empowered within clear guidelines. When we have clear work for leadership layers, and they are knit together through well designed connections and conversations, all parts of the organisation can come together as a whole.
What behaviours and traits will be critical from leaders and businesses as they rethink and redesign their approach to leadership in a post-pandemic operating model?
Here are some of suggestions based on our observations.
• Embrace tension as healthy – Within a matrixed organisation, value is created at the boundaries of strategy and organisation, where tension is inevitable. Surface the tensions and resolve them collaboratively.
• Model a ‘we’ mentality – As a leader, always be cognizant of the language you’re using. Never refer to colleagues as ‘they’ – everyone is listening closely. With the challenges workers are facing, even the small choices you make with how you speak can communicate whether you feel connected or not.
• Value working horizontally – Today, leaders must embrace and understand that working horizontally is as important as managing up and down. Take the initiative to create momentum with your peers to address the root causes of issues.
• Support problem solvers – During times of uncertainly and complexity, courage has to be rewarded. Take note of those employees who are not only raising a concern, but also putting themselves in the middle of these problems to help solve them. Employees tell us that one of the most important questions they want to hear from their leaders is “how can I help?”
Amy Kates is a managing director at Accenture