Org Design Literacy Might Just Save The World

Organizational dysfunction, manifest. Unnamed international humanitarian NGO, South Sudan, 2011.

We’ve got a lot of work to do in the world today. A lot of big, hairy challenges to solve. I know thousands of incredible people committed to tackling those challenges across a wide range of sectors. But here’s what I see missing so often…

Basic organizational design literacy, which is to say, an ability to understand how the anatomy of an organization function together. Sure — there are specialists out there focused on particular organs like strategy, learning and development, compensation, workflow, DEI etc, but the more you can understand the organs as a whole, the more alchemy your great ideas, technical expertise and leadership acumen can achieve (with others, of course. #RadicalCollaboration).

Getting big stuff done inside large organizations is TOUGH. It shouldn’t be as tough as it is. And all of us — especially those with power — are making it tougher than it needs to be. We have bad habits and shaky assumptions that we need to unlearn.

Unlearning requires org design literacy. If I don’t stretch my calves after running, and then wonder why my legs are stiff — and I don’t even know what muscles ARE or how to look after them — I lack basic BODY literacy. Same goes for organizations. If we run meetings poorly, and then wonder why we feel like we’re barely moving the needle — and we don’t even understand the the organ that ‘meetings’ are (heck, I’d call them the ‘blood flow’ of the org) and how to look after them — then that lack of org design literacy is going to continue to trip us up no matter what.

Org design literacy is, in my opinion, one of the most fundamental skill sets we need today if we want to see dysfunctional systems get healthy. Org design literacy is about understanding how people and complexity function for better or worse in order to get things done together that are worth getting done. If we really want to tackle climate change, shore up our public health infrastructure, recover from the pandemic in a more equitable way, unlearn the American addiction to work, help our kids recoup the educational losses of the pandemic and the list goes on…we need to know how to effectively disrupt and steer the Titanic-like organizations that play an important role in solving those challenges.

Great, smart, committed people get sucked into the vortex of organizational dysfunction and then find themselves spending the bulk of their energy resisting that dysfunction (or succumbing to it entirely). Untold losses of creativity, ingenuity and discretionary energy occur — losses that we can’t afford. Some eventually decide to move to the margins of the organization where ‘at least’ they can make an impact on their one patch of grass and be more or less left alone by the ‘higher ups’ to get something worthwhile done — often they get some really awesome things done, but usually, that’s in spite of how the rest of the organization can otherwise hold them up. This will not do. We have too much to get done in this world right now to push smart, committed people to the margins, or worse yet, out of the systems entirely.

We literally need to learn how to clear our calendars of useless meetings, how to quickly and collectively reflect on our actions, how to redistribute power, how to make decisions, how to establish clear lines of communication and working agreements, how to experiment, how to learn and develop together. We don’t all need to be experts at every organ — we just need to know the anatomy well enough to know that when we hit dysfunction, “There must be a better way, and here’s where we might start…” A lack of holistic attention to these seemingly ‘basic’ elements [read: organs] of organizational life is, in my opinion, literally leading to our social and ecological demise.

So — where to begin? To date, I find that The Ready’s Operating System Canvas is the most comprehensive AND easily digestible introduction to organizational design, to the ‘anatomy’ of organizational life. Go check it out…it’s pretty dope.

Organizational Epidemiology | Conversation Design | Leadership Development | Systems Innovation | Kiwi | Co-Parent | Writer

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Lucy Ellis

Lucy Ellis

Organizational Epidemiology | Conversation Design | Leadership Development | Systems Innovation | Kiwi | Co-Parent | Writer

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