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Keep it Simple!

By Alan Ward

The thought of conducting an organizational review shouldn’t give anyone reason for sweaty palms.  Unfortunately, it has that potential.

A quick survey of the topic can lead us to near despair:  infrastructure planning, internal architectures, process analyses, and blueprints for change… I mean, really, who knows what to do?  If you are a smaller organization, it is all the more daunting.  People in your office work for a living, and they are busy. There is little time to stop and take stock … and that’s precisely why you have to think about doing the organizational review in the first place.   

The environment in which your organization operates is changing.  Sometimes the changes are thrust upon you but often they are more subtle.  You lift your gaze from the immediate and notice that members are asking for different kinds of value.  It they don’t want more, they now want better. What worked so well in the past now raises more questions than answers.  If you resist the urge to dive back down into the pile of priorities that are calling to you, you recognize that listening and planning are not mere guests knocking at the door.  They, along with change, may be your new best friends.

I wrote a blog post a while ago about organizational limits.  The main takeaway was that we don’t know our limits until we push past them.  It is as true for our organizations as it is for us as individuals.  We know what we have done, what we have done well or not so well, and what we stay away from doing.   We tend to keep on doing what we do.  We know our experience, but maybe not our limits. 

If our desire is to continue to grow and regenerate our organizations and to create new forms of value, we need to consciously move beyond what we do day after day.  The big question is whether, today, we have the resources and processes in place to do that.  An organizational review can help you to better understand what your organization is doing (yes, there may be surprises!) and what may be required for continued success.

So, where and how does the work of an organizational review begin? As with most everything in life, it begins with awareness.  Ideally, you have responded to the changes in your environment with a look at your organization’s strategy.  The strategy or a plan for some kind of material change is typically the backdrop for the review.   Your strategy encourages you to build an operational plan to ensure that what needs to be done will be done.  The organizational review helps you to understand how work needs to be structured to make this happen.

Absent a change in formal strategy, a realization that you seem to be bumping into the same issues and roadblocks time and again can be the stimulus for the review.  What kind of roadblocks?  I would guess that a list might include missed (or mad scrambles to meet) project deadlines, a lack of follow through on new ideas, problems that you have seen before rising again, and maybe most frustrating is the time that you have to spend on things that you truly believe someone else should be doing.   The latter point alone can sometimes spur us to action!

Regardless of the specific impetus, once the opportunity for an organizational review becomes increasingly apparent, the hard part is deciding how to structure it.  Is an organizational review a big project or something that is done off the corner of someone’s desk?  The truth is that it need be neither. 

How to structure the review

The big project approach smacks of complexity.  A truism is that complexity in any endeavor will ultimately erode value.  An organizational review should not be simplistic but it needs to be managed for simplicity.  Having said that, it can’t be run off someone’s spare time.  It is work that needs planning and attention, and some knowledge and skill to execute. It is also an initiative that needs to be done in an atmosphere of compete transparency and trust.

An organizational review is an assessment of jobs, tasks, and how positions are related and inter-related.  It is a targeted effort to understand how work gets done now, what work is most important to accomplish, and now it may need to be flowed differently.  It seeks to identify the levels and nature of the knowledge, skills, and abilities that your organization requires if it is to match resources with priorities. 

Not an assessment of people or their relative level of performance

Let us be clear on this.  If an organizational review is undertaken with an agenda of managing performance, it has failed before it starts.  Within any organization, large or small, the course of an organizational review may reveal an imbalance in skills and knowledge or gaps in organizational capability (having the knowledge or skills to do that which now must be done).   The mandate for the review, however, is on the organizational level and never on individual performance of staff members.   Managing individual performance, encouraging learning and development, and the accompanying decisions are responsibilities and accountabilities are distinct from the organizational review.

The mechanics of an organizational review need not be complicated.  Essentially, it involves purposeful and informed data gathering, primarily through interviewing position incumbents. In a smaller organization (less than 10 people), I would recommend that all staff be interviewed.  If a larger workplace, the process will need to be sequenced and likely will not result in a sweep of all positions.  There are key positions in any organization – not all at the top of the house, by the way – and that is likely the place to start. 

Regardless of the number of roles to be examined, the art of the interview is in full bloom here. We are not only conducting a position analysis.  Equally, we are uncovering how the documented or expected duties of any role line up with the reality of the types of work that have become attached to it.  Not uncommonly, it is here that some surprises can pop up.  Tasks and processes that at one time may have made a lot of sense can now leave us scratching our heads.  It might be laughable were it not for the fact that these legacy processes take time, attention, and resources away from more important work.

What can also appear from the interviews are interesting workflows.  Every position interfaces with a number of others.  What happens almost organically in every organization is that work flows back and forth -- and around.   Some workflows can be very efficient, maybe even elegant.  Others are case studies in how not to get things done. The commonality among them all is that they are almost never questioned.  Using simple process mapping techniques, using such sophisticated tools as index cards or sheets of craft paper, we can illustrate how workarounds, multiple hand-offs, and rework can slow things down.

At this point, I can understand if you are beginning to think that an organizational review sounds like a lot of work.  Again, it need not be.  Remember my cautionary words around keeping it simple.   I will concede, though, that if you decide to do a review on your own, it will take some time - time that you may or may not have on your calendar.  However, it is not only the time factor that you need to consider.  The more important hurdle may be objectivity.

Despite your best and honest intentions to view everything through a fresh lens, I suggest that this is a hard act to pull off.  Being able to park your known biases -- positive and negative -- takes a high degree of discipline.  Your unconscious biases involving people and processes (some of which you may have instituted) will tend not to reveal themselves to you.  You then have to rely on your staff to be completely open with you, challenge your thinking, and perhaps own up to work patterns that are not flattering.  Even if you are well liked and respected, they may not choose to walk that path with you.  To the degree that any of this comes to pass, the merits of the organizational review can be compromised.

Be clear on the reasons with everybody

To create the atmosphere for a successful organizational review, you need to be clear on the reasons.  You then need to share these reasons with everybody.  Transparency and confidence in the process are achieved when communication is planned, thoughtful, and sufficiently comprehensive.  You don’t have to rewrite the Magna Carta, but you should let people know what is going to happen and why.  You need to make and keep a commitment to update people along the way. 

You cannot promise that changes in the way work is done will not occur, but you can and must be genuine in your conviction that staff should not feel at risk.  This is not about targeting people or finding reasons to reduce staff or eliminate positions.  It is about focusing the organization on excellence and the work and processes that support it.