Combining Approaches to Deliver at the Point of Need with Agile Organization Design

These are unprecedented times. Companies expect workers to be digitally competent; to produce greater quantities of products and deliver higher quality services faster with less resources. Remote working, competing priorities, constant changes, and a desire to have some semblance of “work-life balance” adds to the complexity. Delivering on leadership and customer expectations suffers when your team is stuck due to a lack of strategic direction, is confused about their role and responsibilities, and cannot make decisions to move the work forward.  A large Aerospace and Defense company recently faced this exact scenario. The Workforce Strategy and Innovation team needed to show significant value to the business and deliver on their strategic objectives, but they struggled on where to begin.

Creating an Agile Organization Design Approach

As part of the organization design consulting team at GP Strategies, we conducted a condensed organizational assessment to identify the root cause of the most significant issues. As a result, it was determined that the organization design needed a refresh; but the aerospace and defense company did not have time for the traditional organization design process that could take six months to a year to complete. To address this, we came up with a unique organization design approach that was agile, iterative, and effective for this team. Though still adhering to the basic tenants of GP Strategies’ holistic Organizational Design approach (shown below), we tailored the iterations of the organization design process to specifically meet the urgent needs of our client so they can effectively respond to the fast-paced speed of their business. Our approach and best practices shared throughout this article are strategies we used to focus on the greatest needs of the client first and iterate on all components of the organization design over time to not only meet the demand needs quickly but also to ensure the design can flex and adapt with the organization as it undergoes significant change throughout their enterprise transformation initiatives.

The modified approach included the following process steps for the first iteration:

  1. Align on strategic direction and priorities; only include the top two or three in scope for the first iteration
  2. Define the highest priority work that the organization will perform
  3. Create an intake process to scope, prioritize, and allocate resources to perform the work on an ongoing basis
  4. Create clear governance processes for decision making
  5. Identify key performance indicators (KPIs), metrics, and feedback mechanisms to iterate on the organization design for continuous improvement
  6. Monitor and report success; celebrate quick wins and achievements
  7. Share best practices and lessons learned with other teams 

Below are a few best practices to consider when using an agile organization design process. 

  1. Do Not Start from Scratch 

The team had been in existence for almost two years and were not looking to radically redesign how they operated. Instead of starting from a blank slate, we needed an approach that allowed for incremental changes while still delivering services to their customers. We conducted an assessment to identify if there was an existing vision statement, mission, and strategy for the team. A high-level expectation for the roles and responsibilities existed, but there were significant opportunities to clarify and prioritize the work. We clearly defined what would be in-scope and out-of-scope for the organization design. We also identified what needed to be done now, because future work would build on it, versus what could wait to be updated, or iterated, later. For example, the team did not have a strategy, vision or mission so we prioritized those items to discuss first. Fortunately, we already had a good idea of what the strengths and opportunities for improvement were, so we saved that discussion for a future date.

  1. More Than Agile: Work with Agility in a More Agile Way 

Leading organization design activities is challenging in any environment. In this case, the team was virtual; spread across three time zones in the US. Due to other priorities that could not be deferred, the team did not have the luxury of meeting in a multi-day off-site workshop to facilitate the discussions. Also, we were under tight time constraints. We only had about a week to plan and prepare for the organization design work. The process had to finish within three weeks to meet established deadlines and respond to the needs of the business. To do this, we had to challenge our thinking and approach around how to adapt a more traditional organization design process to focus on the critical missing components first and then iterate over time. We broke the organization design workshops up into smaller sessions and activities that were scheduled over the course of two weeks. Live virtual workshops were scheduled. They ranged from one to four hours long and were scheduled three to four days per week. We focused on defining the critical organization design components needed to provide the direction to respond to customers. To supplement the short workshops, we used collaboration technologies and interactive meeting techniques, such as providing information, discussion questions, and documents to pre-read in preparation for live meetings. We asked participants to complete homework assignments to prepare to engage in collaborative discussions during live virtual workshops and within Slack, an online collaboration tool. We used silent meetings, where quiet time was allocated during the live virtual workshop, so participants could read and familiarize themselves with the materials to be discussed.

  1. Use Technology as Accelerators 

Each team member worked remotely so all workshops and collaboration discussions were conducted virtually. The use of technology was a critical accelerator in completing the organization design quickly and without requiring us to be in all day in-person workshops. We leveraged several online collaboration tools to work more efficiently and add fun to our work day and the process itself. Through the use of a team channel in Slack, we were able to have real-time communications and collaborate, review, and approve materials on our own time to cut down on the need for e-mails and meetings. We set up an emoji key to assign priority to each post to help team members identify what they needed to review and action in what timeframe. Using the emojis to react to posts, we were able to show that we looked at them and completed a task, and it was a fun way to thank and celebrate each other’s accomplishments.

Box, a secure cloud-based content management tool, was used to house team documents, such as our organization design homework and in-process design work, and was also used for dynamic note taking where the whole team was able to collaborate in a Box Note at one time. This worked well for brainstorming and silent meetings, and gave us a place to document key points from a meeting to reduce redundancy and the need to sync our notes later on. 

MindManager is a creative mind mapping tool. It helped us brainstorm ideas throughout the organization design process and was useful to sketch out and organize our support model and menu of services for our customers. 

Once the organization design reached our minimum viable product (MVP), we used Confluence, a web-based corporate wiki tool, to document our newly defined intake model, menu of services, and our team strategy and goals for our customers and other internal teams to view. To help keep us on pace and promote visibility to both our team and business partners, we used Jira, a work management tool, to plan and track our organization design components across sprints. Lastly, after the first phase of the organization design was complete, we conducted a team retrospective using MetroRetro, an interactive and collaborative tool, to document what worked well, what did not, and action items and next steps moving forward.   

Even though we used a variety of tools throughout the process, each one had a distinct purpose and enabled us to collaborate, make key decisions in a virtual environment, and helped accelerate the organization design process in an agile way.

  1. Our Insights

Below are a few key insights for applying this approach with additional teams in the future.

  • Prepare your workshop participants for all activities that need to be completed upfront, with clear roles and expectations. Providing a full picture of the organization design process upfront will help orient and set the context for your team members.
  • Divide up the work into smaller assignments before each meeting.  
  • Be flexible and alter your agenda depending on how the discussions proceed. Work with your participants to keep their schedules flexible in case they need to make accommodations so you have the right team members represented during the appropriate workshop sessions.
  • Promote transparency and supplement it with open and honest feedback to create a climate of collaboration and teamwork. Check in with your team often to ensure everyone understands the task at hand and why it is important. Provide a venue to ask questions, such as a team channel in Slack, and share the work as it is being developed.

This tailored and agile approach to organization design requires deep knowledge and application of organization design, and deep understanding of traditional Agile frameworks (we used Scrum!) in order to provide the right level of guidance to your client. 

All in all, there is never a perfect time to do organization design. However, if you take an agile and strategic approach, start with what is existing, focus on the critical needs of the organization first, and then iterate over time, you can meet the needs of the business faster. In this approach, organization design is not a “once and done” activity. It is an ongoing, flexible, iterative process to establish an effective and efficient organization that will mature over time. Decisions made during the first iteration of the organization design process should be honored, but also provided with the flexibility to adjust as the needs of the team and/or business changes over time.

About the Authors

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Sarah Peacey

Sarah Peacey, Ph.D. is an Organization Development executive with a broad array of global internal and external management and consulting experience. Sarah specializes in talent acquisition, talent management, behavioral change management, program management, project management, culture change, and diversity & inclusion. In her current role, she helps FORTUNE 500 companies achieve their strategic objectives and sustain change by leading global teams through enterprise-wide transformation initiatives and organization design projects. Sarah has worked with companies across multiple industries including Aerospace and Defense, Technology, Food & Beverage, Power & Utilities, Financial Services, and Heavy Manufacturing. Sarah is an advocate for mentoring and inclusive work places. In her previous roles, Sarah served as the Director of Diversity and Inclusion and Global Director of the Talent Center of Expertise for CSL Behring and a management consultant at KPMG. She received a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology; a Master’s of Science in Management and Organization Behavior; and a Ph.D. in Organization Development from Benedictine University.
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Michelle Crowe

Michelle Crowe is an Organization Design and Change Management Consultant at GP Strategies. She specializes in bringing meaningful strategies and solutions to companies undergoing transformational changes and organization design initiatives. She works with organizations to address their needs through preventative analysis, designing strategic solution(s), and developing action plans to ensure those solutions are operationalized and adopted in the organization. Michelle is an expert in applying Agile methodologies, including Scrum and Kanban frameworks, and helping organizations achieve agility and adopt new ways of working. She has a Master of Arts degree in Industrial/Organizational Psychology from Xavier University and a Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology from Miami University.