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Organic Organizational Design

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Organic Organizational Design


A core concept for design is “Form follows Function”. An organization, like any entity should be designed to effectively deliver to its function (purpose). Organizational design would be a relatively straightforward task if organizations operated in isolation or if the external environment was stable.  Since organizations are open systems that exist within an ever changing and increasingly complex environment, the task of organizational design becomes a more challenging task. To add to the difficulty, we are in the midst of moving from an industrial age to a knowledge age that challenges existing structures.

A significant shift in thinking in the knowledge age is the use of biological metaphors rather than machine metaphors. There is a focus on the whole and the connection of the parts rather than on the parts alone. From our industrial age roots, organizations were thought to have clear boundaries and assumed an authoritarian, hierarchical pyramid like organizational structure. Our organizations reflected a mechanistic model. This was effective for the time since the need for responding to change was not as immediate. Access to information was not easy nor was the workforce as educated.  Access to information and decision making was concentrated at the top. This authoritarian hierarchical model provided clarity, consistency, and control.

In today’s world, information technology, globalization, increasing customer demands, and increasing workforce education push organizations to be more flexible, responsive, and growth oriented. There has been a shift to a more organic metaphor that focuses on growth and sustainability both for the organization and the environment in which it exists.  Some of the emerging themes that justify a more organic organizational design approach are:

         Nature and evolution are better models for a dynamic and unpredictable world than the efficient but inflexible machines that shaped institutions throughout the Industrial Age.

         Centralized control is self-limiting.  Diversity and innovation thrive where power and information are located where the customer value creating work is done.

         Stability Change; Competition collaboration; freedom self-governance; and individuality community are not opposites.  The greatest benefit comes when we think in terms of both/and rather than either /or. This allows each concept the distinctive strength that each has to offer.

         Communities are held together and progress by the power of purpose, shared beliefs, and identity - not by force.

Factors that make an organization effective in a growth oriented complex environment are the following organic attributes captured in the “To-Organic” side of the FromTo comparison that follows (see Table 1).



From - Mechanistic

To - Organic

Function driven

Purpose driven





Top down –hierarchical,

Local  focus













Table 1

Many of the traditional approaches to organizational design operate from the concepts that were effective in the “From” mechanistic, industrial age side of the above table. In order to design an effective organization for the future, the “To-Organic” growth, responsive side should be employed.

 An impactful organizational design approach referred to as “Chaordic Design” was introduced and refined by Dee Hock (1999) and Joel Getzendanner[2] to specifically address the “To-Organic” side of Table 1. Their organizational design approach utilizes six lenses to gain perspective on the nature of an integrated organization/community. Their approach is well suited to support growth, responsiveness, and empowerment in an open/whole system organization. It is especially suited for both local and global communities where members are drawn together by shared understanding and deep conviction to the purpose of the organization/community.

As an adaptation and simplification of the chaordic organizing approach, organic organizational (Org2) design is offered. Org2 design provides a similar approach utilizing six lenses (or facets) to the organization that must be integrated and iteratively designed. By going through a process of considering each of the facets (lenses) of the organization, participants will find a great deal of clarity is gained that leads to decisions about how to deliver to the purpose (function) of the organization. The process is not linear and can not be done in one pass. Org2 design considers six facets (See Figure 1) somewhat sequentially (Purpose, Principles, Practices, Participants, Pieces, and Processes) and absolutely iteratively.

In the Org2 designTM process, one discovers that each facet provides clarity and raises questions for the other facets. In addition, each facet has a stable foundational aspect and a changing responsive aspect. In a sense, the design process may be complete for a time but is never really finished since the organization and its environment continues to evolve and the design must remain aligned and integrated.

Org2 Design’s Six Facets – High Level Overview

          Purpose: Pursuing what is deeply meaningful, the reason for being is the foundational level of purpose. It is internally focused and long term. Purpose is a clear and simple statement of the worthy pursuit that identifies and binds the community (stable aspect). The responsive aspect of purpose that is externally influenced is strategy.

          Principles & Values: Clear, commonly understood and agreed upon statements of what will guide the behavior of the participants in pursuit of purpose. Organizing principles and shared beliefs (the What) are intrinsic values that create alignment and coordinated relationships.

          Practices: Specific agreements on How to operate and grow together (e.g. location of power/authority, decision making, accountability, acquiring and distributing resources, knowledge sharing, and acknowledgement). Trust is created in the organization when participants can anticipate how others will operate. Innovation is created in the organization when there are a minimum amount of agreements.

          Participants: Members of the organization or community. It is who is involved and how he or she contributes, is valued, and valuable. This involves roles, responsibilities, skills, competencies, learning, and movement in and out of the organization. Participants are where the package of distinctive skills is located that allows collaborative execution to the purpose/strategy.

          Pieces: Organizational structure/concept, patterns of growth, relationships, and connection to the whole. The “Pieces” are the aligned and coordinated groupings of participants executing the processes and utilize resources and information to further the purpose/strategy of the organization. The stable aspect of the organizational structure involves the functional structure that supports growth in skills and competencies. The changing/responsive aspect involves project teams and networks to respond to strategic changes and spot opportunities. 

          Processes: Work and information flows that produce value. There are two main types of processes: customer value creating processes and supporting processes. There is a tension in processes to provide stability/consistency yet responsiveness/flexibility. Variation is both friend and foe.

It is not difficult to provide high level definitions for the six facets. However, the real understanding of the meaning of each facet and the organization is gained by experiencing and having conversations about each facet in context of each other and the organization/community that is being created.

[1] “Boundaryless” references removal of artificial barriers such as organizational levels, functional department, or firm boundaries that could impact delivery of value to the customer.

[2] A huge debt of gratitude is extended to Joel Getzendanner for his knowledge, guidance, and openness to sharing the chaordic design principles. Without his insights, the org2 design approach could not exist.

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