Preparing for the Future with Scenarios

Our lives, personal and professional, have been disrupted in a way that many of us may have never imagined. As schools and businesses close, people find themselves isolated from colleagues, friends and family, and sometimes facing this challenge alone. Everything that we took for granted seems to be upside down and inside out. And there is no definitive end in sight.

How do we plan for a future with so many unknowns? Even though your boards and leaders may be seeking concrete solutions, it’s simply not possible; no one has a crystal ball. None of us can accurately foresee how the next months will unfold, and quite frankly, that is not our work right now. As futurist Amy Webb so pointedly observed, our “goal right now isn’t prediction. It’s preparation for what comes next.”

One thing we can do right now is to actively contribute to what comes next. That means collaborating to find new ways of working and new ways of connecting. To support your planning, we offer an exercise from our Designing Collaborative Workplaces program. It can help you and your colleagues identify and see possible futures, so that you can pull out plausible scenarios, categorize them, and help your team stretch their thinking to develop strategies and adapt to a new way of working.

With so many unknowns, what people need to see from their leaders right now, is that they have a good command of the here and now — even as it changes hourly— as well as the capacity to think about the medium and longer terms. The Shaping Possible Futures exercise below, is a low-tech way to help your teams think ahead, to carefully explore alternative scenarios, so that you can prepare for what might be coming next.

Creating a Collaborative Workplace: Amplifying Teamwork in Your Organization

Let’s begin with a question. Are you experiencing barriers to working collaboratively, even though you know collaboration is necessary? If you answered yes, this article is for you.

We all know that contemporary work requires collaboration. In our fast-paced, knowledge-intensive workplaces, success requires people to integrate and leverage their efforts. However, knowing that collaboration is essential and being able to foster collaboration, are two different things. Indeed, collaborative failures are commonplace.

As an academic and practitioner, the question I hold is: how can we design organizations to foster necessary collaborative work? Two core assumptions are inherent in my question. The first is that organizations must understand their collaborative work needs. In other words, to support purposeful collaboration, leaders must first step back and reflect on the basic question: what work will benefit from a collaborative effort? While seemingly simple, this question requires leaders to rethink the very nature of how work is framed, assigned and distributed. A second core assumption is that collaborative work cannot simply be overlaid on top of traditional contexts. Rather, collaborative efforts require a system of norms, relationships, processes, technologies, spaces, and structures that are quite different from the ways organizations have worked in the past.

Below, I share the learnings I am acquiring through my research and practice around how collaboration is changing, and the ecosystem of supports that enable it.

Download PDF: Creating a Collaborative Workplace: Amplifying Teamwork in Your Organization

Is Your Workplace in Motion?

Do you encourage collaboration between departments?

Are you ready for a changing demographic in your workforce?

Do you know how technology will change your organization in the future?

This past spring, Queen’s IRC hosted a summit to explore our workplaces in motion. We thought of our summit as a discovery space.  We invited people to come together to reflect, share and re-imagine how their workplaces could become more transparent, integrated and inspiring. Through an old world – new world lens, we explored how four inter-related trends (see model), are shaping the new employee, the new work, and the new workplace.

Our lofty aim was to reveal how the workplace principles and frameworks that worked in the past no longer serve us.  While we all appreciate that the era of centralized governing systems and rigid hierarchies is over, many of the legacy principles are so deeply engrained, we simply do not see or question them. Our task was to surface the principles that no longer serve us, and define a new set of workplace fundamentals promoting connectivity, innovation and adaptability.

In service of keeping those conversations going, we offer our old world-new world models as a starting place for you to ponder the future of your workplaces.  As you reflect on each of the three models (the new employee, the new work, the new workplace), gather your colleagues together and answer the questions below.  We’ve employed a technique called reverse brainstorming to surface the organizational practices and systems that may, inadvertently, be rooting your organization in the past.

Download PDF: Is Your Workplace in Motion? Exploring the new employee, the new work, and the new workplace 

Designing for Collaboration

Collaboration is emerging as a core organizational competence, and indeed an imperative, in today’s interconnected work context.  Despite the need, collaborative results often fall short of the intended ideals.  A large body of research suggests that while collaboration may be necessary, it is not easy (Bryson, Crosby & Stone, Rhoten, 2003; 2006; Suddaby, Hardy, & Huy, 2011).  Failed collaborative efforts have led academics to point to the many sources of collaborative inertia; organizational elements that act as barriers to collaboration.  What if, instead of attempting to overcome elements of inertia, we shift our efforts to designing holistic systems that enable collaboration?  Below, I argue that collaboration is a design challenge.  To enable more fruitful collaboration in our organizations, we need to design for it.

Download PDF: Designing for Collaboration

Developing Organizations – A Metaphorical View

Can organizations be designed to grow people? With the emphasis on talent and knowledge management in today’s uber-competitive business context, the assumption certainly seems to be yes. The reality, however, is that many organizations fail to develop or tap the competence of their people. Referring to the problem of pervasive disengagement amongst today’s workforce, Gary Hamel (2012) laments that organizational systems are more likely to “frustrate extraordinary accomplishment than to foster it” (p. 137). Just what is the relationship between people development and organizational development? Can organizations be designed to foster both? How are our views about this relationship evolving?

To ponder these questions, I trace the evolution of how theorists and practitioners have viewed organizations, and the development of people within them. My viewfinder for this journey will be the lens of metaphor. For, suggests Morgan (2006), the images, frames and perspectives we bring to the study of organizations very much shapes what we can know about them. If the way that we understand organizations and shape management practices is based on implicit metaphor, then what might we see—about preferred structures, practices, and models of organizational life—as we adopt alternative worldviews? Just as importantly, with each change of the viewfinder, what might we miss?

I begin with the mechanistic lens, often associated with Frederick Taylor’s (1911) scientific management. Here organizations are viewed as machines and people development is focused on isolating and perfecting skills in service of operational efficiency. With the advent of the human relations movement, an organic view of the organization emerged. Pioneering theorists Elton Mayo (1933), Abraham Maslow (1943), and Kurt Lewin (1947) identified the important linkages between employee aims and motivations, the social and technical environment, and organizational performance. More recently, those espousing the contextualist worldview place practice, within one’s workplace community, as the core lens through which human and organizational development are explored.

Download PDF: Developing Organizations – A Metaphorical View

Building Teams: Exploring Teamwork in Fast-Paced, Dynamic Environments

Teamwork is the way we work in organizations. In our highly dynamic work environments, people are challenged to collaborate, almost daily, in service of efficiency, quality and innovation goals. Often, these challenges require coworkers from different units and with diverse skills, to quickly group and flexibly regroup as projects unfold. Unfortunately, most organizations are not designed for fluid, cross-boundary collaboration. To the contrary, the legacy of the formal hierarchy, with tightly defined job boundaries, serves to thwart, rather than promote teamwork across boundaries.

Below, I employ Kellogg, Orlikowski, and Yates’s (2006) trading zone analogy as a way to explore teamwork in fast paced, highly dynamic environments. Through their case study of teamwork in an internet marketing firm, we will see that practices promoting cohesion and stability amongst team members, are replaced by practices promoting interactivity and exchange. The lesson is that, as the formal hierarchy is supplanted by more flexible, networked structures, our prescriptions for teamwork must evolve to suit.


Anchored in Weber’s bureaucracy and Taylor’s principles of scientific management, most organizations are designed to emulate a simple machine. Machines are built for standardization, consistency and clock-like precision. As coworkers attempt to confront challenges at the intersection of their jobs, tightly defined procedures and decision rules, built to preserve the status quo, get in the way (Goldhaber, 2000; Morgan, 2006). Examples of failed attempts at cross-border collaboration abound. One needs to look no further than one’s morning newspaper for an accounting of the many systemic challenges confronting our education, healthcare and judicial systems, amongst others.

Against this backdrop, a new, and much more flexible and fluid approach to teamwork and workplace design is required. Instead of viewing the organization as a gigantic machine, how might we envision a workplace that seamlessly facilitates a dynamic network of interconnectedness? In answer to the call, Kellogg and colleagues (2006), offer the analogy of the trading zone.

The trading zone, they suggest, offers a view of the organization, and the people within it, as a complex, ever-evolving web of interactions. Just like traders connect to exchange goods, employees connect to exchange needs, ideas, and solutions. Interestingly, the notion of exchange does not imply permanent relationships or outcomes. What is important however, is the opportunity for coworkers to connect around shared interests, in a shared space, governed by a set of interaction processes. Through the lens of the trading zone, our understanding of teamwork shifts from designing stable, discrete, goal oriented units, to enabling an emergent, flexible exchange amongst interested colleagues.

The Trading Zone in Action

To arrive at their analogy, the authors conducted an in-depth field study of the coordination practices amongst members of a highly dynamic internet marketing firm. The firm was comprised of four distinct units—client services, project management, creative, and technology—the members of which formed temporary, self-organizing project teams. Given the intense time pressures and near perfect quality expectations, the work required the members to co-create in parallel, with changes in one area, for example client services, necessarily impacting creative services and so forth.

A number of practices were identified as helping members co-create products and services that met the evolving expectations of their clients. They are: 1) the use of collaborative online tools, 2) the use of common frameworks, 3) the use of plausible scenarios to compensate for imperfect information, and 4) the use of knowledge storage practices. All practices enabled members to experiment, in a trial and error fashion, to build and revise prototypical products as they learned their way forward.

Collaborative online tools enabled members to display their work in real time, making it visible and accessible to all members. In essence the collaborative online workspaces enabled members to work in parallel—a necessity due to time constraints—while at the same time making their work schedules, commitments, timelines, progress, and issues visible to others. Importantly, display practices created a timely, evolving archive of ‘what’s going on’ so that members remained ‘in the know’ and responsive to emerging issues.

Common frameworks and protocols guided members to complete and express their work in a form that was easily understood by all. The templates enabled members to begin work and play their part, with minimal upfront discussion. Given the protocols, members understood what needed to be done, by whom, in what sequence and how.

Plausible scenario building enabled members to begin work in the absence of full information and adapt as issues were clarified. Instead of waiting for perfect information, members created scenarios that provided just enough direction for members to define their assignments and proceed. Because the work was highly visible, each member was able to edit and revise the group’s work, as the details became known.

Knowledge storage practices enabled members to codify, reuse and combine existing knowledge—for example codes and presentations—in current projects, so that they did not have to reinvent anew. Members working with tight time frames were able to select know-how from a vast reservoir of past projects, repurpose it in existing projects, and display it online for all to build from.

Interestingly, to collaborate, members did not need to spend a lot of time and energy upfront, defining joint norms and building relationships. Together, these organizational practices enabled the project teams to form quickly and begin working on common client goals almost instantaneously. Further, the practices enabled members to work in parallel, and keep projects moving, even though they had partial information about the evolving needs of their customers. As a result, the community remained in ‘dynamic alignment’ as they learned their way forward.

What about conflict, politics and human dynamics you ask? Indeed, the authors found that the diverse values, interests and norms of members, along with occasional jurisdictional issues, caused tensions. Moreover, the fast pace and need to be constantly available created performance pressures. Yet, they reasoned, it was the common sense of urgency that created a sufficient force to keep the members moving forward in unison.


Is the trading zone analogy apt for all teams, in all contexts? Perhaps not. The internet marketing firm that Kellogg and colleagues (2006) studied needed to be designed for speed, in service of customized products. Relationships amongst members were secondary to speedy product development. Accordingly, the prescription of standard practices to enable fast and flexible experimentation fit.

To the contrary, your organizational challenges may require a stronger focus on relationship building, in order to first understand the common challenges before finding a way to confront them. What we can say is this. Today’s teams are no longer served by rigid structures and processes that assume predictable work and stable relationships. To meet our complex challenges, especially the ones at the intersection of multiple boundaries, organizations will be well served by adopting and experimenting with new, more organic and ecological analogies for teamwork and workplace design. Given the complexity of our challenges, teams need tools, workspaces and approaches that dissolve the boundaries and enable the requisite innovation, learning, speed, and flexibility.

About the Author

Brenda Barker Scott

Brenda is an facilitator on a number of the Queen’s IRC programs including Building Smart Teams, Organization Development Foundations, Organizational Design and HR Decision Making. A frequent presenter, Brenda has been a keynote speaker for the Public Health Agency of Canada, the Conference Board of Canada, the Human Resources Planners Association of Ontario and the Canadian Institute for Health Research.Brenda Barker Scott has extensive experience in all aspects of organizational development acquired over a twenty-year career in teaching and consulting. When working with leadership teams she combines strong theoretical knowledge with practical methodologies to ensure that the right people are engaged in the right conversations to design robust and workable solutions.

Brenda is co-author of Building Smart Teams: A Roadmap to High Performance. She is a graduate of Queen’s University and lives in Kingston with her husband and two sons.


Goldhaber, D. E. (2000). Theories of human development, integrative perspectives. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield Publishing Company.

Kellogg, K., Orlikowski, W., & Yates, J. (Jan-Feb 2006). Life in the trading zone: structuring coordination across boundaries in post-bureaucratic organizations. Organization Science (17) p. 22 – 44.

Morgan, G. (2006). Images of organization (updated edition). Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.

Decision Making and the Limits of Rationality

Decision making is a central activity in organizational life. Independent of one’s role or profession, the ability to make effective decisions is a core competence that must be practiced daily. Despite its importance, evidence suggests that we’re not particularly skilled at making decisions, especially the complex, strategic ones. According to Professor Paul Nutt (1999, 2010), approximately half of the decisions made in organizations fail. In his exploration of hundreds of strategic decisions made in North American and European organizations, Nutt found that upwards of fifty percent of decisions are abandoned, judged by those charged with implementing them as unworthy. Why the high failure rate? Perhaps the answer lies in our understanding of what decision making actually is. In other words, perhaps the assumptions we hold around decision making, how it is best facilitated, and our cognitive abilities have a strong influence on how we practice it. Perhaps those assumptions are guiding us to faulty practices.

If the way that we practice decision making is based on our assumptions around effective decision making, how might our preferred models and modes shift as we adopt alternative perspectives? Decision making has been explored from many points of view and those views have evolved, in part, with the dominant worldviews of the day. Below I explore a sampling of those perspectives with the purpose of uncovering the contributions and limitations of each. Based on the insights gained, I offer suggestions for how we might tip the balance toward more fruitful decision making in our fast-paced, contemporary workplaces.

The Rational Systems Perspective

Early perspectives viewed decision making as a rational choice, based on a logical and sequential cause and effect analysis. With the assumption that environments were knowable and predictable, the “economic man” as decision maker was presumed to identify quantifiable problems, search for plausible options, prioritize those options according to predefined criteria, and select the optimized choice with certainty (Miller & Wilson, 2006).

Based on these rational assumptions, classicists such as Taylor (1911) and Weber (1947, in Dessler, 1980) were preoccupied with designing jobs and organizational forms that enabled rational and efficient decision making. The assumption was that codified rules, predictable relationships, set jobs, and clear lines of authority would enable organizations to make rational decisions with machine-like proficiency. In turn, employees were viewed as mechanical parts that could be expected to perform as directed.

Weber’s (1947, in Dessler, 1980) bureaucracy granted decision rights to individuals on the basis of their position within the hierarchy. In turn, employees were bound by predefined decision rules, which were assumed to produce accurate responses. Taylor (1911) rigorously analyzed work patterns to determine the one best way for structuring tasks. To ensure consistency, he carefully selected employees and trained them to perform tasks, as directed. For both Weber and Taylor, compliance was sought through the use of directives, tightly defined jobs, explicit training, and financial incentives (Scott & Davis, 2007).

To summarize, rational managers sought stable and predictable attitudes, skills, and behaviours. Decision making was assumed to be a relatively straightforward process, bound by the parameters of one’s job. Decisions were shaped, controlled, and coordinated through a system of carefully constructed job rules, decision rights, and norms of conduct.

The Natural Systems Perspective

In the 1920s and 1930s pioneering theorists Elton Mayo (1933) and Kurt Lewin (1947) saw that, in addition to the formal organization, an informal and unpredictable organization exists. In this informal organization, human aims and needs have a significant impact on attitudes and effort. Indeed Mayo’s Hawthorne studies, originally based on the rational hypothesis that lighting could be optimally adjusted to support worker productivity, illuminated quite another reality. As worker productivity increased independent of the lighting levels, the researchers discerned that social conditions—group norms, supervision, and relationships—were critical to employee effort. Theorists also began to note that rules and procedures could produce unintended, and in some cases, deleterious consequences. Such was the case with the incentives designed to pressure slower workers to increase their pace at Hawthorne Electric. Ironically, the incentives had the opposite effect; it was the slower workers who pressured the faster employees to slow down through the process of binging (Dessler, 1980; Scott & Davis, 2007).

The discovery that employee effort is a function of more than directives, rules, and rewards exposed the limits to the rationalist paradigm. Recognizing that people are limited by both human and organizational factors, March and Simon (1958) offered an alternative view of the organizational decision maker; one where employees identify satisfactory rather than optimal solutions. Burdened by incomplete information, unclear decision criteria, limited time, and partial perspective, decisions may be rational, but only from the unique perspective of each decision maker’s aims, role, and reach (Miller & Wilson, 2006; Scott & Davis, 2007).

A central question for theorists therefore became: How to ensure compliance when humans are motivated by a wide array of personal and work related factors? While March and Simon (1958) agreed that decision making boundaries were important to distributed decision making, they reasoned that decision rules could not be pre-programmed for every eventuality. Rather, novel and complex challenges require rigorous and thoughtful analysis of ambiguous data. Here, they reasoned, decision makers require the requisite “attitudes, habits and state of mind” (Simon, 1976, in Dessler, 1980, p. 41) that can only be developed through enculturation and education (Miller & Wilson, 2006).

To summarize, as the rational paradigm gave way, theorists recognized that decision making could not necessarily be bound by formal job-related rules and protocols. Not only were social factors at play, but rules and incentives often produced unintended consequences. Adding to the complexity, pre-programmed responses were impossible to predict for novel, hard-to-define challenges. With the aim of creating organizational predictability and control, theorists prescribed a well designed system of decision rights for programmable decisions, supplemented with efforts to develop perspective and judgment amongst those charged with more complex tasks.

The Open Systems Perspective

With the emergence of the open systems perspective following World War II, many theorists began studying the interrelationships between subsystems, as well as the relationship of systems to their environments. Studies by Lawrence and Lorsch (1967) in the United States and Burns and Stalker (1961) in the United Kingdom, set out to explore a number of open system tenants. Both sets of authors, working independently, found that organizations operating in stable environments tend to develop simple, formal structures, with centralized and disciplined information sharing and decision making. On the other hand, organizations operating in more complex environments developed more organic structures with informal communication patterns and decentralized decision making. Contingency theory was thus born, providing theorists with a wider lens from which to explore how environmental complexity (or perceptions thereof) shape organization form, decision rights and information processing patterns (Scott & Davis, 2007).

Building from contingency theory, Daft and Weick (1984) developed a theory of organizations as interpretive systems to model how managerial assumptions about the complexity of their environments shape decision making practices. Those adhering to a rationalist perspective are more likely to assume that the environment is knowable and predictable. These managers collect predefined data and assess it against specific metrics to find the “right” answers. On the other hand, managers who assume that the environment is not knowable or analyzable, enact their environments by using trial and error approaches. Independent of whether managers see the environment as knowable or chaotic, those who assume the environment is competitive will be more active and apply greater rigour in their scanning, interpreting, and deciding processes than those who assume the environment is benevolent. In addition to highlighting the important role that managers play in capturing, translating, and responding to environmental cues, Daft and Weick’s model calls attention to trial and error processes for deciding that might be more applicable to complex, ambiguous environments.

Applying contingency thinking to decision making orientations, Mintzberg and Westley (2001) identified three orientations to decision making. Thinking first approaches work best when the issue is clear, the data are reliable and equivocal, and the context is unchanging and known. Here, rational cause-and-effect reasoning works well. Seeing first approaches involve envisioning and prototyping solutions so that they can be tested, analyzed, and improved. Doing first approaches involve acting and experimenting in order to learn before deciding. The authors suggest that seeing first and doing first approaches are essential when the context is ambiguous, many elements need to be combined into creative solutions, tacit knowledge needs to be shared, and the only real way of knowing is by doing and reflecting.

In summary, a key assumption underpinning open systems theory is that systems evolve in direct relationship to the complexity of their environments. Complex environments are less predictable, highly competitive, and in constant flux. In turn, complex organizational systems need to be more fluid, capable of taking in, sharing and processing information, and more responsive to their environments. Decision making processes therefore need to be more iterative with prototyping and trial and error replacing, or perhaps supplementing, pre-programmed methodologies.

The Chaos Perspective

Turning the rationalist perspective of decision making on its head, Cohen, March, and Olsen (1972) describe organizations as anarchies. Anarchies, as in the case of the universities they studied, are defined as chaotic systems rife with unclear goals, authority clashes, and stakeholders with competing interests. The authors likened the decision making arena to a garbage can. Goals, issues, players and their solutions are tossed into the can. Depending on the contents of the can, some issues, solutions, and people stick and surface, while others get lost. Cohen and colleagues suggest that some organizations, or even all organizations part of the time, are a messy collection of “choices looking for problems, issues and feelings looking for decision situations in which they might be aired, solutions looking for issues to which they might be the answer, and decision makers looking for work” (p. 2). Recognizing the absurd view that the garbage can metaphor offers, the authors point out that while the garbage can process does not produce optimal solutions, ” it does enable choices to be made and problems resolved, even when the organization is plagued with goal ambiguity and conflict, with poorly understood problems that wander in and out of the system… and with decision makers who may have other things on their minds” (p. 16).

Employing yet another analogy, this time a trading zone, Kellogg, Orlikowski, and Yates (2006) suggest that in dynamic and volatile environments, such as the internet marketing firm they studied, decisions are best made through an emergent, ongoing exchange of ideas that get adopted and altered over time. Just like traders interacting to exchange goods, so too do organizational members need a space and process for exchanging ideas, work progress, and solutions. The notion of trade or exchange does not require shared goals or meaning amongst the parties and does not presume permanent outcomes. Rather, in conditions of uncertainty and change, the authors suggest that collaborators are best served by a trading zone, whereby they can prototype and display their ideas for others to build on, adapt, or even omit, as the work progresses in “dynamic alignment” (p. 36). The authors claim that the trading zone analogy becomes important as traditional bureaucratic structures give way to more dynamic, fluid forms, which are better suited to today’s complex, fast moving environments.

In summary, the chaos perspective assumes the decision environment to be complex and the players to be guided by their unique needs, abilities, and perspectives. Instead of trying to reduce ambiguity to simplify the data set, chaos approaches embrace it. While the garbage can model favours perseverance, the trading zone analogy provides decision makers with joint space and common tools to display and combine ideas from which decisions emerge. Given the volatility of the context, permanence is not sought or valued. Rather, the decisions themselves are assumed to evolve and shift, in dynamic alignment as needs and conditions shift.

The Power Perspective

While the concepts of decision making, authority, and power are closely linked, some theorists have chosen to focus on power in decision making in its own right. Here, theorists have studied decision making from the lens of power brokers competing for control of scarce resources. Decision making is viewed as being “far removed from the coolly logical appraisal and selection of alternatives. Rather, it is at the center of a web of political machinations and dynamic power exchanges, the true nature of which is not fully recognized, even by those involved” (Miller & Wilson, 2006, p. 474).

From the power perspective, stakeholder groups engage in bargaining behaviors that often lead to sub-optimized compromises with winners and losers. In an early, yet influential study, Hickson et al. (1971) found that the complexity and politically of decisions do indeed shape the decision process and outcomes. When decisions were relatively straightforward and politically benign, a fluid, streamlined process was more apt to occur. On the other hand, politically tumultuous decisions were more apt to follow a sporadic process, with delays, disruptions, and uneven use of information. The researchers found that in approximately one third of the cases, the decisions had been made before the process was completed, or in some cases even started, due in part to the covert maneuvering of powerful interest groups.

In summary, the power perspective assumes the environment to be competitive, with parties vying for their interests to be met, often at the expense of the others. Decision making is therefore a strategic process of building allies and winning small victories, all in pursuit of one’s ultimate aim.


While each and every day employees make decisions vested by the authority of their position, decision making in organizations is not a straightforward endeavor. Returning to Paul Nutt’s (2010) analysis of managerial decisions, he concludes that, all in all, decision makers do not employ good process. Typically, decisions are made in isolation, with decision makers over estimating the clarity of their challenges, the reliability of their data, the effectiveness of their solutions, and the commitment of the implementers.

What can we make of this? With each turn of the viewfinder from the rational perspective, through systems, chaos, and power perspectives, we come to understand that decision making is not a rational, choice based process. Daft and Weick’s (1984) interpretive systems, Cohen, March, and Olsen’s (1972) garbage can metaphor, and Hickson and colleagues’ (1971) power dynamics all contribute to bursting the bubble of the rational paradigm; first logical reasoning, followed by the optimal choice. Rather, decision makers are influenced, sometimes blinded, by perspective, need, and social/political forces. At times, and in some situations, interpretation follows choice; actions are taken and supportive reasoning follows. Alternatively, solutions may emerge, as in the case of the trading zone, following trial and error prototyping.

The good news is that organizational theorists and practitioners will continue to wrestle with the many sides of decision making from fresh perspectives. The gift of the newer interpretive approaches is that they embrace ambiguity and invite decision makers to experiment, act, and learn. If, as open systems theory predicts, systems evolve in direct relationship to the complexity of their environments, then any approach that enables decision makers to wrestle with the complexity of their challenges will serve them well. Interestingly, this is essentially what Paul Nutt found. While practices enabling participation and learning were the least used in his study sample, they were the most effective in producing workable solutions with staying power. Given our less than stellar track record with the rational perspective of decision making, perhaps it is time to make a turn of the viewfinder, and in so doing, expand our decision making repertoire.


About the Author

Brenda Barker Scott

Brenda Barker Scott has extensive experience in all aspects of organizational development acquired over a twenty-year career in teaching and consulting. When working with leadership teams she combines strong theoretical knowledge with practical methodologies to ensure that the right people are engaged in the right conversations to design robust and workable solutions. Brenda is an instructor on a number of the Queen’s IRC programs including Building Smart Teams, Organization Development Foundations, Organizational Design and HR Decision Making. A frequent presenter, Brenda has been a keynote speaker for the Public Health Agency of Canada, the Conference Board of Canada, the Human Resources Planners Association of Ontario and the Canadian Institute for Health Research. Brenda is co-author of Building Smart Teams: A Roadmap to High Performance. She is a graduate of Queen’s University and lives in Kingston with her husband and two sons.



Burns, Tom, and G. M. Stalker. The Management of Innovation. London: Social Science Paperbacks, Tavistock Publications, 1961.

Cohen, Michael D., James D. March, and Johan P. Olsen. “A Garbage Can Model of Organizational Choice.” Administrative Science Quarterly 17, no. 1 (1972): 1-25.

Daft, Richard L., and Karl E. Weick. “Toward a Model of Organizations as Interpretation Systems.” Academy of Management Review 9, no. 2 (1984): 284-295.

Dessler, Gary. Organization Theory: Integrating Structure and Behaviour.Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1980.

Hickson, David J., Christopher R. Hinings, Charles A. Lee, Rodney E. Schneck, and Johannes M. Pennings. “A Strategic Contingencies’ Theory of Intraorganizational Power.” Administrative Science Quarterly 16, no. 2 (1971): 216-229.

Kellogg, Katherine C., Wanda J. Orlikowski, and JoAnne Yates. “Life in the Trading Zone: Structuring Coordination Across Boundaries in Postbureaucratic Organizations.” Organization Science 17, no. 1 (2006): 22-44.

Lawrence, Paul R., and Jay W. Lorsch. “Differentiation and Integration in Complex Organizations.” Administrative Science Quarterly 12, no. 1 (1967): 1-47.

Lewin, Kurt. “Frontiers in Group Dynamics: II. Channels of Group Life; Social Planning and Action Research.” Human Relations 1, no. 2 (1947): 143-153.

March, J., and H. Simon. Cognitive limits on rationality in organizations. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1958.

Mayo, Elton. The Human Problems of an Industrial Civilization. New York: Macmillan, 1933.

Miller, Susan J., and David C. Wilson. “Perspectives on Organizational Decision-making.” In The Sage Handbook of Organization Studies (2nd ed.), edited by Stewart R. Clegg, Cynthia Hardy, Thomas B. Lawrence, and Walter R. Nord, 469-484. London: Sage, 2006.

Minztberg, Henry, and Frances Westley. “Decision Making: It’s Not What You Think.” MIT Sloan Management Review 42, no. 3 (2001): 89-93.

Nutt, Paul C. “Surprising but true: Half the decisions in organizations fail.” Academy of Management Executive 13, no. 4 (1999): 75-90.

Nutt, Paul C. “Comparing the Merits of Decision-making Processes.” In Handbook of Decision Making, edited by Paul C. Nutt and David C. Wilson, 449-500. Chichester, West Sussex: John Wiley & Sons Ltd., 2010.

Scott, W. Richard, and Gerald Fredrick Davis. Organizations and Organizing: Rational, Natural, and Open Systems Perspectives (Rev. of 5th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, 2007.

Simon, Herbert A. Administrative Behavior (3rd ed.). New York: The Free Press, 1976. Quoted in Gary Dessler. Organization Theory: Integrating Structure and Behaviour.Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1980.

Taylor, Frederick Winslow. The Principles of Scientific Management. New York: Harper, 1911.

Weber, Max. The Theory of Social and Economic Organization, translated by A. M. Henderson and Talcott Parsons. New York: The Free Press, 1947. Quoted in Gary Dessler. Organization Theory: Integrating Structure and Behaviour.Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1980.

Designing Organizations: From the Inside Out

“We trained hard but it seemed that every time we were beginning to form up into teams we would be reorganized… I was to learn later in life that… we tend to meet any new situation by reorganizing; and a wonderful method it can be of creating the illusion of progress while producing inefficiency and demoralization.” (Charlton Ogburn, (1957), reflecting on his experience as a soldier during WWII).

It’s a familiar story. While organizational design is not new – for centuries leaders have experimented with the best way to structure their kingdoms, armies, churches, factories, and governments – our track record has been less than stellar. Intuitively, we know that organizational design must enable employees to be more innovative, service oriented, connected, and efficient. Yet, we lack a practical framework for generating novel designs; ones that enable people to realign their focus, develop new capabilities, shift resources, and build alternative networks, all in service of making the right work easy. As a result, when it comes to design, many restructuring efforts are based on tweaks, cuts, and add-ons, instead of an open-minded and fresh exploration of what “ideally” needs to be.

Appreciating that most design decisions involve complex tradeoffs that favour chosen capabilities at the expense of others, designers need to be rooted in a deep understanding of their design goals, which we refer to as design criteria. Once defined, the design criteria become the North Star, or new DNA, so to speak, for designers as they turn to developing and testing prototypes before solidifying chosen elements into the full-blown design.

Our step-by-step process leads designers through a series of targeted conversations that move from defining the focus, scope, and aims of the design effort, to collecting insights from people in the know to shape design criteria, to building those insights into prototypes for testing, to codifying recommendations for action. Importantly, each conversation builds from and becomes a platform for each subsequent conversation, so that designers learn their way forward. This article describes the integral steps in the organizational design process: define, discovery, design, and do.

The “How” of Design

Perhaps the best way to understand the organizational design process is by living it with your own case as an example. Accordingly, I ask that you select an organization – it can be a team, department, division, or whole organization – as your unit of analysis.

Define: Conversations set the focus, scope, and boundaries of the design initiative, as well as the involvement strategy of who to involve and how.

Step 1: Environmental Scanning

A myriad of factors in your organization’s environment – customer expectations, demographic shifts, technological advancements, new legislation – combine to define the agenda for strategic and structural renewal. We therefore begin by getting a clear handle on the events, trends, and developments that are impacting your organization’s success and viability. What’s going on in the competitive, technological, social, and political landscape? What are the implications for your organization in terms of challenges and opportunities? This step can be completed in a number of ways. Some organizations create detailed trends reports, some engage trends experts to educate them, and some employ tools like trends mapping to aid their conversations. By the end of this step, designers will be firmly rooted in the trends, events, and developments that are driving the redesign effort.

Step 2: Diagnosing Fitness with the Good Design Tests

Now that you are rooted in an understanding of the drivers for change, you can test the “fitness” of your current design to meet those challenges and opportunities. The Good Design Tests help designers develop a common appreciation of their design issues – or cracks in the foundation – that have been leading to a deterioration in efficiency and effectiveness. Typical design issues, or cracks, include an inability to adapt, role confusion, duplication of work, poor relationships, unclear authority, insufficient resources, and in some cases, an inability for people to focus on the core, value-added work. For a full description of the Good Design Tests refer to IRC article, Designing Organizations: A Blueprint for Effectiveness by Brenda Barker Scott. The Design Tests have been adapted from Gould and Campbell (2002).

Envision each test, described below, as an alternative lens from which to explore your current design. This multi-lens discovery is meant to provide a holistic and rigorous diagnosis of the fitness of your current form, in light of your organizational challenges and opportunities.

Fit for Strategy Test: Does your design enable members to focus on and achieve your strategy-the core, value-added work?

The Flexibility Test: Does your design enable people to adapt to day to day irregularities, developing strategies, and future challenges?

Capabilities and Resources Test: Does your design focus resources on and enable the execution of required capabilities?

Relationships Test: Does your design permit seamless/easy interactivity between areas that need to cooperate and collaborate?

Accountability Test: Do people know who has accountability for what? Are they enabled to make decisions and act?

People Test: Do we understand the job roles that are critical to organizational success (pivotal roles for now and in the near future)? Are we able to fill them with talented people?

Leadership Test: Do our leaders understand their core roles? Do our leaders at each level of the hierarchy offer knowledge or coordination benefit?

Feasibility Test: Do we understand, and are we operating within, the constraints bounding our design? Constraints can be financial, technological, legislative, resource related.

As designers reflect on each test, they will identify the design issues, or cracks, that need to be addressed via the design process.

Depending on the focus, breath and depth of design issues identified, the work may require fine-tuning within a unit, or a full-blown examination of multiple units and levels. If, for example, the current organizational form does not easily permit people to focus on the right work, or to develop core capabilities, or to coordinate activities, the scope of the work will be quite broad. On the other hand, if the current form permits the right kinds of work focus, flexibility, and connectivity, but blocks accountability, then accountability will be the primary focus.

Step 3: Involvement Planning

With a good appreciation of your focus and scope, designers can now identify the key stakeholders – they may be subject matter experts, customers, partners, leaders – who need to be involved to provide input, guidance, feedback and direction along the way.

Think of your involvement strategy as achieving two concurrent and necessary aims:

  • Who needs to be involved because they need to lead within the new system? These stakeholders, typically in supervisory roles, will be charged with creating the context for their staff to work within the new design. If they do not understand the nuances of the new design – the new capabilities, working relationships, working principles – or if they do not support it, they will not be catalysts and the design will not be fully realized.
  • Who else needs to be involved because they have expertise, perspective and knowledge that will lead to a more robust and realistic outcome? To identify these individuals, think about all of the stakeholders who are a part of the system you are designing. Bring them together in working communities so that they can share their input, as well as learn from each other about the inner workings of their whole system. As people share and learn, a fuller picture starts to take shape, for both “what is” and “what can be,” thus dissolving the boundaries and creating the capacity of the system to see itself more fully.

Discovery: Conversations uncover the design criteria (or aspirations) for the renewed organization.

Step 4: Create Design Criteria

Employed as a creative tool, the design tests can be used to generate a series of design criteria that capture the core essence of what the organization needs to be designed to do. The design criteria becomes the DNA, providing deep insight into an organization’s core work, required capabilities, resources, key relationships, decision rights, leadership, and essential people qualities.

For example, the design criteria for a Strategic Services Unit may be as follows:

We need to be designed to:

  • Equip managers with the information, perspective and analysis they need to make strategic and operational decisions.
  • Provide outreach and education to managers on policies and directives.
  • Provide analysis and tools to streamline and simplify processes and decision making for managers.

Design criteria need to provide specific and targeted direction related to a key aspect of organizational design, mainly insights around: the focus of work, the degree of flexibility, core competencies and resources, key relationships, and so on. Later in the process, design criteria will be selected to form the backbone of how units are shaped, linked, resourced, and led. Design:

Design: Conversations turn to prototyping, testing, and refining straw model design concepts.

Steps 5 & 6: Create and Test Design Concepts

Once we have the design criteria, we can move to shaping the actual form of the organization. There are essentially three building blocks of form; they are groupings, linkages and processes, and protocols.

Groupings define how people are clustered into departments, divisions, units, and teams. In essence groupings create the division of labour.

Linkages define how people are connected for the purposes of cooperation, collaboration, and learning. Linkages define the nature and purpose of the vertical and lateral networks. They are accomplished via a combination of linking mechanisms such as cross-functional teams, liaison roles and technology.

Processes and protocols capture how core work is to be completed by specifying process steps, working methods, and philosophical principles that underpin the work. As an example, the award-winning firm IDEO has created a four-stage product design process that underpins all their work. As leader Dave Kelly remarks, “We are experts on the process of how you design stuff. So we don’t care if you give us a toothbrush or a toothpaste tube, a tractor, a space shuttle, a chair, it’s all the same to us. We, like, want to figure how to innovate by using our process and applying it” (ABC Deep Dive, 1999)

Prototyping design concepts is meant to be a playful, generative process. Based on Bertalanffy’s (1968) principle of equifinality, there is more than one path to success, or in our case, more than one feasible design option. Accordingly, designers are tasked with creating design concepts, which can be compared and tested, before detailing the full-blown design.

Design concepts enable the designers to envision how the organization can be grouped, linked, and led. To begin, designers select a set of design criteria to form the backbone of each potential grouping or process. Based on the intelligence from the design criteria, core work tasks are shaped, core relationships are designed, and appropriate protocols and processes are crafted. Once envisioned, design concepts can be compared, contrasted and tested with relevant stakeholders. From this testing stage, new ideas can be surfaced, and combined to arrive at a final design.

Do: Conversations are focused on codifying recommendations for action, seeking approvals, and communicating plans and involvement strategies for implementation.

Step 7: Implementation Planning

With the design concepts fully formed, designers are now ready to move to implementation planning. Key implementation considerations include pacing and phasing, communications, staff placement, transitioning to new work, providing enabling supports, and detailing the next level design.

In many ways “next level” design is round two of the process, however in a streamlined and more focused way. We can think of the design process as a cascading set of design phases, whereby the process repeats itself at each successive level. We often begin with the corporate level, which is akin to creating the foundational framing, to provide the overarching corporate structure and the divisions. Next we move to designing within each division to define the departments, then units, and then teams. Job descriptions are created at each level, as sufficient clarity permits.

An Inside Out Approach

This approach to design is a decidedly inside out. Contrary to popular practice, before we begin to play with the form – the groupings, linkages, processes and protocols – we first develop a deep appreciation of the foundational design criteria. Rooted in the organization’s strategic goals, we consider capabilities, resources, relationships, people and leadership criteria that become the North-Star for the prototypes. Design criteria free us from the constraints of the current form to imagine a new set of DNA, which in turn, generate alternative sets of processes, protocols, relationships, resources, and technologies. When, on the other hand, one begins with form first, by moving, cutting or merging units, or rethinking and reworking processes, the design will continue to be built from yesterday’s design criteria, and an opportunity for forward-thinking and open-minded exploration is lost.

What does your organization need to be designed to do? Follow our process, step-by-step to create the foundation for your “fit for purpose” design.



ABC’s Nightline. “Deep Dive.” Filmed 1999. Posted December 2, 2009.,.

Gould, Michael, & Andrew Campbell. Designing effective organizations: how to create structured networks, SanFrancisco: John Wiley and Sons, 2002.

Ludwig Von, Bertalanffy, (1962). “General system theory – A critical review.” General Systems 7 (1) 20.

Ogburn, Charlton, (1957). Merrill’s Marauders: The truth about an incredible adventure. Harpers Magazine, January.

Brenda Barker Scott is a facilitator with Queen’s IRC Organizational Development programs, including the Organizational Design training program.

Designing Organizations: A Blueprint for Effectiveness

In today’s fast paced world, organization design is an essential competency. As leaders strive to become more efficient, customer focused, and/or innovative, organizational forms must necessarily adapt in support. Paraphrasing Gary Hamel and Bill Breen in The Future of Management (2007), expecting a traditional bureaucracy to be speedy and flexible is like asking a dog to dance the tango – it simply is not in the dog’s, or the organization’s, DNA. Good design, therefore, defines more than the structural boxes and lines found on an organization chart. While those lines and boxes describe an organization’s basic frame, they reveal very little about the nature of the core work, protocols for how work gets done, and the social expectations for how units are meant to relate. What are the performance drivers? What capabilities need to be developed and honed? How do resources need to be shared? Who needs to link with whom? What mindsets and protocols are required? Who decides? Good design incorporates these relational, procedural, and social elements – the DNA so to speak – to ensure that people are grouped and linked, as well as led and supported, to focus on the core work.

With global, technological, and social trends dramatically altering customer expectations for quality, service, timeliness, and innovation, new organizational forms are evolving to enable greater innovation, speed, and flexibility. Designs with steep hierarchies, centralized authority, and narrowly defined jobs are hopelessly out of date. From Lars Kolind’s (2006) spaghetti organization to Gareth Morgan’s (1989) organic network, the DNA of these new forms is dramatically different from that of the traditional bureaucracy – they are entirely different entities.

If good design rests on a set of core principles for defining the organization’s DNA, then a foundational question becomes “what does our organization need to be designed to do?” To address this big question, I adopt the Blueprint for Organizational Effectiveness, a contingency model developed from our research and practice at Queen’s IRC. The Blueprint suggests that an organization’s design should evolve from a set of interrelated and mutually supportive design tests (Gould and Campbell), that together provide the structural, relational, and social foundations of good design.

Just like a building is comprised of many design elements that must fit together – from the plumbing, to the electrical, to eventually the curtains – so too do the design tests combine to create a holistic foundation for design. With the strategic goals as the base foundation, the tests combine to support the right types of work, capability development, flexibility, coordination, accountability, leadership, and motivation. The nature and relative importance of each design element is, in turn, shaped by contextual factors in an organization’s environment, including its legislative boundaries, customer profiles, technology system, competitive system, and environmental complexity. Together, these environmental forces create a tension, which pulls an organization toward distinct, but useful configurations. Because there is a natural coherence for how the organizational design elements fit together in relation to the environment, changes to an organization’s internal or external environment will necessarily lead to adjustments amongst the inter-related design elements (Mintzberg, 1981).

Blueprint for Organizational Effectiveness

Queen's IRC Blueprint for Organizational Effectiveness

The design tests are each based on a foundational principle for good design. These principles are not new, but derived from the wisdom of noted academics and practitioners including, but not limited to, Jay Galbraith (2002), Gould and Campbell (2002), and Nadler and Tushman (1997). The tests and associated principles will not provide targeted answers, for the process of organizational design is one of surfacing design choices, wrestling with the tensions associated with complimentary options and selecting preferred options. Given the multitude of factors, the design tests provide a container for the critical conversations that leaders must engage in to create robust, holistic and fit for purpose design choices. The following section provides an overview of the eight good design tests: Fit for Strategy, Flexibility, Capabilities and Resources Relationships, Accountability, People, Leadership, and Feasibility.

Fit for Strategy Test Does your design enable members to focus on and achieve your strategy – the core, value-added work?

The fundamental principle underpinning this test is that form follows function and consequently that the organization must be designed to enable the development and implementation of strategy. The fit for strategy test is a simple one. It asks leaders to first specify the primary sources of value the organization delivers to key customers (products, services, expertise, etc.), and then to consider whether the design enables members to focus on the core work associated with delivering that value. While Cirque de Soleil may require resources focused on innovation, development and safety, Wal-Mart will necessarily be focused on efficiency, cost reduction, and quality. If your design does not focus the attention of individuals and units to play their part in strategy execution, then your design does not pass the strategy fit test. Often, when organizations renew their strategies and redefine the value-added core work, leaders discover that the design needs to be adjusted or reimaged to suit.

To reflect on the fit for strategy test, consider the following:

  1. Do we understand our core work?
    • How we create value?
    • For who?
  2. Are we able to focus on the core value-added work? Why or why not?

The Flexibility Test Does your design enable people to adapt to day to day irregularities, developing strategies, and future challenges?

Here the underlying principle is that good design enables people to notice, interpret, and respond to challenges and opportunities as environments change. Highly complex environments, with ever shifting urgencies given customer, competitive, social, technological, or legislative contingencies, need to be more agile and innovative than organizations in less complex environments (Burns & Stalker, 1964). Begin by listing the major sources of known change, followed by emerging opportunities. For each source of change, explore how organizational design elements (how units are grouped, relationships, protocols, processes, mindsets, etc.) serve to enable or block likely change. If change is imminent or likely, and employees cannot adapt and innovate, your design fails the flexibility test.

To reflect on the flexibility test, consider:

  1. What are the major sources of change? What are the major sources of opportunity?
    • Are they competently monitored and interpreted?
    • How often do they shift and re-shuffle?
  2. How able are we to:
    • Shift, reassign, or expand our resources to suit?
    • Incorporate new ideas and practices into our methodologies?
    • Why or why not?

Capabilities and Resources Test Does your design focus resources on and enable the execution of required capabilities?

The principle behind the capabilities and resources test is that, given one’s strategic goals, the organizational context must enable people and units to develop a set of core capabilities to expertly execute the associated work. A capability is simply the ability to apply knowledge (both know what or know how). An example of a capability is the ability to innovate or to bring a product to market faster than competitors. In addition, people must be supported with the necessary resources – be they physical, technological, social or emotional – to develop, hone and use those capabilities to the full. Examples of resources include budget allocation, access to expertise, technology, space, and reputation. In actuality, capabilities and resources are bundled together to enable the strategic goals. For example, to develop the capability of “innovation,” it will most likely require a bundling of experts, financial resources, time and space, a mindset supporting innovation, and a technological infrastructure. Over time, capabilities become embedded in the organization via strategies, processes, techniques, protocols, roles, and so on.

To employ the capabilities and resources test ask:

  1. Have we identified our core capabilities – what we, as a unit, need to excel at?
  2. Does our design enable us to develop and hone these capabilities?
  3. Do we have the right resources (technology, space, access to data, budget, etc.) to leverage these capabilities?

Relationships Test Do we have seamless/easy interactivity with the areas we need to cooperate and collaborate with?

The underlying principle behind the relationships test is that birds of a feather flock together – people who need to work closely, given their expertise, work focus, and role, should be grouped via a unit, or team or a process. In that no unit in today’s connected world can operate in isolation, linkages should also be specified for essential unit-to-unit links. Moreover, those unit-to-unit links should be enabled through a multitude of mechanisms, including a well-defined purpose, goals, roles and protocols. Unit-to-unit relationships must also be bound by a joint appreciation for how the units are meant to relate to each other. Some relationships may be directive, for example an auditing relationship. Other relationships will be more collaborative, for example, a research unit working with a product development unit. Still others will be service oriented, whereby one unit such as IT or HR provides a service for another. All types of relationships pose challenges associated with pace, priority, perspective, and authority that, if not surfaced and mitigated, can create difficult links.

To employ the relationships test ask:

  1. Do we have seamless/easy interactivity with the people and units we need to collaborate with?
  2. Are people who need to collaborate frequently linked together by unit, team, or process?
  3. Have essential unit-to-unit linkages been specified?
  4. Do we have joint goals, roles, protocols, and approaches specified and are they working?
  5. Do we have any difficult or unworkable links?

Accountability Test: Do people know who has accountability for what?

The fundamental principle behind the accountability test is that, to the extent possible, accountability for performance should be specified and enabled. Accountability for performance is aided when people: 1) have a clear understanding of their roles and responsibilities, with performance metrics defined and monitored, 2) are enabled to take responsibility; they have been granted authority, and have access to the necessary resources such as information, tools and technologies, and expertise, and 3) receive feedback with respect to the performance metrics so that they can self correct.

Defining accountability becomes messy when units share responsibility for a joint task, when there are jurisdictional issues associated with who “owns” what work, and when the performance metrics associated with the work are difficult to define, as in the case of a strategy unit whose work depends on the inputs, agreements and cooperation of many players. Despite the many challenges, units should be designed to facilitate accountability and high commitment to goals. If accountability issues arise, the more they are understood, the more likely a workable – yet imperfect – solution can be generated.

To employ the accountability test ask:

  1. Have we specified the critical deliverables and performance measures for the units in question? Are they easily measured?
  2. Are people enabled to take responsibility – they have the authority and the resources (access to data, expertise, tools and technologies) to make good decisions?
  3. Do people receive direct feedback and are they empowered to self-correct?

People Test Do we understand the job roles that are critical to organizational success (pivotal roles for now and in the near future)?

The fundamental principle behind the people test is that, for good or bad, people make organizations stop and go. Accordingly, design must reflect the organization’s ability to attract, motivate, develop, and retain the requisite people talent.

To employ the people test ask:

  1. Do we have the people capacity to fill key roles?
  2. Are people motivated to fulfill the roles as designed?

Leadership Test Do we understand the value proposition of leadership? What’s the core purpose of leadership?

If I collected a dollar from every design team that complained that their new design was meaningless without renewed, enlightened leadership, I would be a rich woman. The principle behind the leadership test is that leaders carry the performance spirit of the organization – they direct the focus of people’s work, enable the development of capabilities and access to resources, and influence how work is accomplished through the sanctioning of formal and use of informal processes, protocols and norms. Therefore, no design work is complete until the roles, competencies, and expectations of leaders are defined, enabled, and supported.

To employ the leadership test ask:

  1. Do we have a common understanding of the role of leaders?
  2. Are our leaders, guided by a core platform of values, mindsets and skills?
  3. Does our platform enable alignment, learning, capacity building, etc.?
  4. Do we have mechanisms in place to enable leaders to learn and work together?

Feasibility Test: Do we understand the constraints bounding our design?

The feasibility test is a reality check. In every organization’s environment, constraints exist. They may be external, such as access to talent or governing legislation, or internal such as culture, technology gaps, or limited financial resources. For the design to be workable, the constraints must be surfaced and mitigated. Otherwise, the constraints will eventually become roadblocks.

To employ the feasibility test ask:

  1. What are the firm boundaries in which we must operate?
  2. Are we operating within these defined parameters?
  3. How might we mitigate against these boundaries?
  4. Are there any roadblocks?


When it comes to designing organizations, there is no single design solution that will optimize all elements. Moreover, changes adopted in one part of your organization will necessarily impact other parts of your organization. To expand your view of the strengths, weakness, and opportunities inherent in your organizational design, employ the good design tests: Fit for Strategy, Flexibility, Capabilities and Resources, Relationships, Accountability, People, Leadership, and Feasibility. The conversations that result from execution of these design tests will subsequently enable your team to have a whole-systems, holistic perspective of your design. The result? You will be better equipped to make realistic and useful organizational design choices.


Burns, Tom and G.M. Stalker. The Management of Innovations, United Kingdom: Tavistock Publications, 1964.

Galbraith, Jay. Organizational Design, Massachusetts: Addison Wesley, 1977.

Galbraith, Jay. “Organizing to Deliver Solution”, Organizational Dynamics 31, no 2 (2002):194-207.

Gould, Michael and Andrew Campbell. Designing Effective Organizations:How to Create Structured Networks, SanFrancisco: John Wiley and Sons, 2002.

Hamel, Gary and Bill Breen. The Future of Management, US: Harvard Business School Press, 2007.

Lars, Kolind. The Second Cycle: Winning the War Against Bureaucracy, New Jersey: Wharton School Publishing, 2006.

Mintzberg, Henry. “Organizational Design: Fit or Fashion?” Harvard Business Review 59, no. 1 (1981): 103-116.

Morgan, Gareth. Creative Organization Theory, California: Sage, 1989.

Nadler, David and Micheal Tushman. Competing by Design: The Power of Organizational Architecture, USA: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Teaming for Today’s Complex Challenges

People working collectively make organizations hum. No matter the task – a radical productivity improvement, a breakthrough innovation, the development of an exceptional customer service culture – people must join together and invest their heads, hearts, and wills to get the job done. When people, with various and relevant skills and perspectives, join around challenges that matter, their collective efforts produce innovations that get implemented.

At its core, facilitating teamwork is about creating space for people to collectively design and execute smart and doable strategies. Reacting to technological and social trends, savvy leaders are placing greater emphasis on learning, knowledge sharing, and collaboration in an effort to develop, access, and integrate the talents of their colleagues.

Today’s teams are challenged with high-stakes issues. Gone are the days when teams could be formed to implement pre-set solutions ordained from above, or when formal and stable teams could operate on the basis of consensus and cohesion. As author Thomas Friedman, writing of the dynamics of an increasingly “flat” world, pointed out, “the next layers of value creation… are becoming so complex that no single firm or department is going to be able to master them alone.” (2005)

Teams are confronted with ambiguous, hard-to-define challenges, involving multiple sets of stakeholders with competing interests, biases, and ways of working. These initiatives require members to learn from each other and from outside experts, to apply and leverage knowledge in new ways, and to go through iterations of collecting and analyzing data before a solution emerges.

I refer to such scenarios as “jamais vu” challenges, because team members have never been there or done that. They are complex in both the tasks to be carried out and the relationships to be developed. These differ from “déjà vu” been there, done that challenges, in which the team members in defined relationships have direct knowledge to apply. Jamais vu challenges abound: healthcare reform, environmental management, global warming, and mergers and acquisitions are all systemic dilemmas that require team members to facilitate complex relationships while forging a new path.

Jamais vu initiatives require a new model of teamwork and collaboration. These collaborations involve members from multiple disciplines, sites, and levels, with diverse backgrounds and expertise. Such teams often work at an accelerated pace, and members must forge relationships to gain perspective and commitment from external experts and stakeholders.

While decisive action – often stemming from the perspective of a single leader or expert – was the focus for traditional teams, discovery, learning, innovation, and distributed action-taking are the fuel for jamais vu teams. In this context, effective teamwork has shifted from a cohesion-based model to a learning-based model to enable streamlined formation, focused discovery, and option generation, experimentation, and energized action-taking.

How do leaders go about organizing for jamais vu challenges? In our book, Building Smart Teams, Carol Beatty and I report on the findings of Carol’s research which narrows the success factors of high performing teams to three critical sets of process and skills. These processes and skills provide a foundation for today’s learning based collaborative climate.

Team Management Practices enable people to define their task and connect to one another

While teams have traditionally focused on their own insular work and processes, today’s teams must take a whole-systems perspective and engage system players in the learning journey. Accordingly, they are more focused on getting a holistic understanding of the challenge, securing required resources and expertise, and defining the process members will follow. Today’s teams are often disbanded as soon as the task is completed. So the focus is on enabling the right people to engage and connect to core tasks as the team’s work unfolds.

Key steps to team formation include:

  • getting a full understanding of the challenge from all relevant points of view, with key success factors;
  • carefully and deliberately defining who needs to lead the initiative and who else needs to be on the team given their expertise, role, or perspective;
  • identifying other stakeholders who need to be engaged for their input, expertise, or feedback;
  • defining the process for fruitfully engaging in this work, including the right tools and technologies; and
  • defining a few key protocols for communicating, decision making and holding each other to account. I refer to this phase of the team’s core work as the define stage.

A robust problem solving process enables team members to work in dynamic alignment

While traditional teams relied on a leader for direction and alignment, today’s teams need to be supported by a robust process as they tackle complex, multi-pronged issues that do not fit within the jurisdiction of a single leader. The process becomes the glue that aligns people around core tasks, and that defines who will be involved and how along the way, including when to consult external experts and other stakeholders.

A good process enables members to share their expertise, fulfill their roles, and remain in alignment as the work unfolds. It also allows for the requisite group learning and resourcefulness. In my work, I employ a four-stage process that enables members to engage in activities that move from:

Defining the task: Setting the focus, scope, and boundaries of the initiative, as well as the engagement strategy of who to involve and how to link key stakeholders to the challenge and each other. Discovery: Collecting and analyzing data to uncover the core issues that need to be addressed and the options for renewal. Designing Strategies: Developing, testing, and refining options into prototypes and straw model solutions. Doing: Codifying recommendations for action, seeking approvals, and communicating plans and involvement strategies for implementation.

Each stage builds from and becomes a platform for each subsequent stage, so that members learn their way forward. Decision makers do not decide on a solution until they have first generated and tested options. Similarly, options are generated from the insights that were generated during discovery. The questions for discovery and the sources for answering them were generated from the way the initiative was ultimately defined.

Communications and conflict handling skills provide an orientation for learning and innovation

Two related orientations are important for effective teamwork and collaboration in jamais vu-land: communications patience and conflict handling skills. Patient communicators are naturally open and curious. Rather than prematurely judging and dismissing data that conflict with their own, they work hard to accept and incorporate relevant views, knowledge, and talents. Patient communicators are adept at sharing their insights and opinions. They are masterful at employing analogies and stories to convey their knowledge in a form that others can relate to.

In turn, members appreciate that conflicting ideas and ways of working are par for the course and do not judge or dismiss members who think or work in ways different than their own. When potentially thorny issues arise, such as a missed deadline, members surface the issues and deal with them. When the team is stuck, members slow down and embark on a strategy to resolve the impasse rather than plowing ahead.


Faced with high stakes and ambiguous challenges, today’s team leaders can employ new methodologies to enable members to develop a holistic view of their task, involve the right people, and engage in a process that facilitates learning, innovation and aligned action. Armed with new insights about leading teams in jamias vu-land, leaders can create the space for enabling and energizing members to deliver solutions that fit the challenge.

About the Author

Brenda Barker Scott, Queen's IRC Facilitator




Brenda Barker Scott has extensive experience in all aspects of organizational development acquired over a twenty-year career in teaching and consulting.  When working with leadership teams she combines strong theoretical knowledge with practical methodologies to ensure that the right people are engaged in the right conversations to design robust and workable solutions.  Brenda is an instructor on a number of the Queen’s IRC programs including Building Smart Teams, Organization Development Foundations, and Organizational Design. A frequent presenter, Brenda has been a keynote speaker for the Public Health Agency of Canada, the Conference Board of Canada, the Human Resources Planners Association of Ontario and the Canadian Institute for Health Research.  Brenda is co-author of Building Smart Teams: A Roadmap to High Performance.

Further Reading

Beatty, C., & Barker Scott, B. (2004) Building Smart Teams: A Roadmap to High Performance, Sage Publications.

Friedman, T, (2005). The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.


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