In the first quarter of 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic was an unprecedented shock that tested organisational design across the public and private sector.
Remote working went from being a perk for a few or a hard-earned concession gifted by a benevolent employer or a whacky experiment only suited to young tech start-ups, to an urgent necessity for everybody as nations sought to control the spread of infection.
Remote working is not new, but an all-remote working environment challenged the resilience and adaptability of our organisational design. In the main, most Australian Public Service (APS) organisations adapted very well. However, there is an open question as to whether that success was the result of resilient organisational design or whether it was because all the traditional barriers and impediments to change melted under the pressure of the pandemic.
This is an important distinction because the way APS leaders respond will shape the lessons the APS learns from the pandemic.
Organisational design is an often talked about but not often thought through activity. Philosophically, organisational design seeks to reconcile the formally designed roles and responsibilities of work (defined in terms of jobs) with the idea that when people collect in groups the defining feature of organisation is that it is social.
Things get done because people are constantly interacting to create an informal social network of relationships that grow through advice-seeking, knowledge-sharing, trust, friendship, and shared identity.
When we speak about improving organisational performance it is through some combination of the formal and informal that we must all work. And the pandemic disrupted both.
But the pressure on organisational design was building well before pandemic. The progressive digitisation of work was already causing strain. Fortunately, managers are trained to manage around inadequacy and to discount the future in favour of immediate gain. So, our organisations were already slowly limping toward a different future of work. The pandemic has both accelerated change and opens a strategic window through which the workforce has glimpsed new possibilities.
This is not to say that APS agencies have not attempted different organisational designs prior to 2020, they have. Several APS agencies have flirted with the idea of adopting the organisational design used by professional services firms (usually advocated by professional services firms). Inevitably, the results were at best partial and at worst the capability and performance of the agency or function was reduced.
The pandemic opens the possibility to reset the infrastructure of the way APS works. In doing so, APS leaders have a chance to reinvigorate tired organisational design and engage a workforce that has had a taste of how work might be done differently.
Technology has been eroding the power of hierarchy for some time
It is flattening our structures and reshaping organisational structures. Sometimes for the good, sometimes not so much. From an organisational design perspective, this has been haphazard, bottom-up, and responsive to the most pressing need.
We are so embedded in the current way of working that it is difficult to imagine a different approach. However, a way to start might be to revisit the experiments that have been tried to see if, in these times of possibility, they might find more fertile ground.
Experimenting with organisational design is not new. Many businesses have tested different ways of working with varying success. For example, W.L. Gore and Associates’, the makers of Gore-Tex, has for many years operated a ‘lattice structure’ in which leaders are selected based on their merits and abilities to attract followers. Dutch firm Oticon designed a ‘spaghetti organisation’, and perhaps most famously, Brazilian industrial products company, Semco, replaced an ‘efficiency’ model with a ‘democracy’ model based on the understanding that ‘people are most creative and productive when they have a say in running the company’.
Other firms, like Gitlab, were all-remote before the pandemic (i.e. no physical office). Over time they have learned that it is well suited to modular work, with strong workforce governance, where hierarchy remains important, and communication and coordination is transparent.
All-remote is unlikely to be the answer for many public service agencies, but could it be workable for some parts of agencies? Are there functions where work is modularised, and workflow does not require employees to be co-located? What culture and behaviours could be put in place to ensure connection and social interaction?
Matrix management has been tried in the public service. The desire to be more like a professional services firm is underpinned by a matrix model of organisation. A matrix can offer greater flexibility, the ability to adapt quickly, and more opportunities to share information quickly through junctions. But to work effectively, the matrix needs managers who can see the forest and the trees. The general advice is to begin with a clear purpose and have strong reasons for implementing a matrix approach, make sure governance and workflow is closely aligned to achieving the purpose, and manage protocols at the boundaries and junctions closely.
Communities of practice have been implemented across the APS, often to support professional or functional knowledge sharing and development. Communities of practice are about content not about form. Communities of practices can be valuable in organisational design as a supplementary capability building and problem-solving organisation. They fail when too much organisational pressure is put on the community to be something that it is not. Communities of practice cannot be designed, but they can be designed for.
There have been many attempts at ‘no boss’ models of organisational design in the private sector. These are sometimes referred to as wiki-designs to convey the idea of a loosely structured, bottom-up, and egalitarian structure. No boss designs come in many forms. The Semco democracy model embodies one variant and the Zappos ‘holacracy’ approach, where management and governance are highly decentralised, embodies another. Work is organised through self-organising teams rather than a management hierarchy. While this is unlikely to be a permanent structure for an APS department it might be applied in environments where unstructured problem-solving is the core requirement.
Crowdsourcing can be built into organisational design as a way of tapping into the intellectual capital of the workforce, partner agencies, and community stakeholders. As the Natural Environment Research Council found out in 2016, when crowdsourcing goes wrong the ‘herd effect’ can lead to outcomes like ‘Boaty McBoatface’. However, when the task is well defined and communicated, the potential contributors are well managed, and the input is managed and curated the results can be surprisingly good. How might crowdsourcing be integrated into organisational design, a persistent feature of APS workforce and stakeholder engagement, collective problem-solving, and idea generation?
These are a small few of the different ways to redesign our organisations. Not all design options are structural, some are cultural and behavioural. They require leaders to have a ‘pandemic mindset’ where the barriers to change that seem immovable are in fact an illusion.
The pandemic has shifted the concept of work from a place you go, to a thing you do. It has been the ultimate catalyst for change. It has been the disruptor that has broken entrenched patterns of behaviour and challenged long held beliefs, processes, and ways of working. For a short time, there will be a unique opportunity to improve capability and performance through the way its organisations are designed. It will be a collective failure of APS leadership imagination if this opportunity slips by in favour of the familiar comfort of habit and routine.