Organizational Design: Lessons from the Field (literally!)

If we see an organization as a living ecosystem, what does this mean for organizational design?  Are there different principles and practices for shaping organizational structure when we recognize it as being alive?  Can it even be designed, or does the structure have to evolve organically somehow?  And is the concept of structure still appropriate, or is it all just emergent co-creation?

These were the questions on my mind over the past several months.  And one of the places I looked for answers was a method of farming called permaculture.  My instinct was that this highly effective and sustainable approach to agriculture must have some useful lessons for organizational leaders in any industry.  And so I invited two experts on permaculture to get the discussion started at the most recent gathering of the Thrivability Montreal conversation series.  Close to thirty people gathered to explore how the principles of permaculture might apply to organizations.  And what emerged was, to me, an explosion of valuable insights.

What is organizational design?  Before we can look for lessons from permaculture, let’s be clear about where we want to apply them.  We typically think of the work of organizational design as writing out the org chart – clearly defining the roles and responsibilities and decision-making structure.  But organizational design also includes the business model, the physical work space, patterns of information sharing, the vocabulary people use, and more.  It’s all the tangible and intangible aspects that support people in their work.  In other words, it’s everything that connects people to purpose.  All of this can be designed, though much of it often emerges without clear intention.

What is permaculture?  A fusion of the words “permanent” and “agriculture,” permaculture is farming or gardening that can be sustained naturally over time.  In fact, the approach is so powerfully effective that even desiccated lands can be renewed.   As we learned from our two guest speakers, Mathieu Gallant and Claude-William Genest, permaculture is not so much a set of practices; rather, it is a thoughtful and ongoing design process based on observation of the inherent patterns, characteristics and relationships of a specific piece of land.  With this emphasis on observation-based design, each permaculture initiative is unique.  For example, projects are frequently designed to follow the natural flow of water and to integrate a variety of indigenous plants.  This is a revolutionary departure from conventional farming, with its monoculture crops, long straight rows, and resource-intensive artificial fertilization and irrigation systems – methods which tend to deplete the land’s capacity to sustain life.  While permaculture is pioneering today, it derives from our most ancient ways of working the land.

How does this apply to organizations?  The parallels with modern organizations are apparent.  Where conventional farming uses the default approach of long straight rows, the standard organizational form is inflexible hierarchy ruling over long rows of generic cubicle or factory workers.  In my own experience, there is often a lifeless, detached feeling to how roles and responsibilities are identified, to how meetings are conducted and to how information is shared.  As a result, work is frequently a net energy drain, if not actively toxic.  Perhaps all of this contributes to the challenge most organizations face to survive.

How do you design a living, thriving organization?  So what if we applied permaculture’s thoughtful, intentionally life-supporting design approach to our organizations?  What would that look like?  And what might be the impact?

At the Thrivability Montreal gathering, we began by exploring what conditions had been present at times when we felt most effective and alive in our work.  The list included things like mastery, autonomy, diversity, meaningful purpose, a nurturing physical setting, authenticity, play, open communication and compassion.

Yet many of these seem to be outcomes of thoughtful design.  So how do you get to those fertile conditions?

The group came up with several examples of specific practices.

  • One participant told the story of a corporate division in which each worker was able to design their own physical work space.  His own design centered around a big reclining La-Z-Boy arm chair, with a tray for his laptop and a drink holder built in.  He did his best work in that chair, he explained with apparent nostalgia.  Indeed, the entire work group was so creative and productive that people from other organizations came on tours just to see how they did it.  This, we noticed, was an example of the physical aspect of organizational design: allowing diversity and autonomy in design of work spaces; creating work spaces that feel nurturing and human.
  • In another example, there was a mix of extroverts and introverts on a team. The extroverts wanted to brainstorm ideas and then make a decision on the spot.  But they all recognized that the introverts needed time to digest and process the new information.  So they agreed that the introverts would offer their input after two days.  When the two days were up, the introverts invariably came up with wildly rich insights.  This, we observed, was an example of thoughtful design of the decision-making process.
  • We even noticed that the design of our own gathering featured some permaculture principles.  We might have had the two speakers on a raised platform seated behind a table, with the audience in rows in front of them.  But instead, we were all seated in a circle, them included. The speakers offered comments to get us started, and then we got into even smaller circles to process what we had heard and to integrate it with our own experiences.  It all felt very dynamic and alive, as we wove together diverse stories and perspectives.  In opening the evening, I explained that the agenda was flexible; if later parts no longer seemed appropriate, we would change them.  And in fact, the final small group activity did seem to need a new design based on what had come up in earlier discussions.  I shared my thinking with the group and proposed a new activity.  They liked some of my proposal but not all.  One person said they’d be interested in tackling a particular topic; several others agreed.  That gave another person the courage to propose a second topic, which again attracted a few followers.  With two more volunteers in quick succession, we had our four groups, each exploring something they were passionate about.  It turned out far better than I had originally planned.  We followed the natural flow of energy, and the solution was self-organizing, in good living systems fashion.   But for that to happen, the conditions had to be intentionally designed to allow self-organization and to channel it to a clear shared purpose.

Beyond specific tactics like these, the more powerful insight seemed to be the general principle that every aspect of our work experience can be designed thoughtfully, with the intention of enabling life to thrive at every level – individual, organizational, customer, community, even biosphere.   Our physical space, our patterns of interactions, our common vocabulary, our business models, our means of deciding who does what, our decision-making process, our information sharing systems… all of these can be designed with care.  And, importantly, they can then be reshaped along the way as new insights emerge and as context evolves.

The trick to designing a thriving organization, then, seems to be three things:

  • First, adopt the lens of a curious and compassionate gardener, seeking always to understand what conditions are going to be most fertile for this living organization that you are stewarding.
  • Second, try to design structure that is strong enough to hold and support shared purpose, but flexible and resilient enough to adapt and evolve.
  • Third, build in the discipline of regular reflection and redesign.

What are your stories?  All of this is easy to say and not at all obvious how to do it.  But stories help us imagine what is possible.  At times when you have felt most effective and alive in your work, what were the conditions that supported that feeling?  How could those conditions be intentionally designed and sustained over time?

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