Organization Alignment and Design

After thirty or more years in the business of organization development it has become clear that still, after all this time, there are no more than 24 hours in a given day. How we use those hours is the issue, of course, not how to extend it or shorten it or avoid it.

Working with clients has provided an insight into how to balance activities that fill that time. If you think of time, 24 hours, as a continuum, and draw a straight line, at one end you can put “innovation, productivity, creativity and development” at the other end would be “predictable, controllable results”. The hypothesis is that, depending on the mission and success drivers for your organization, you and your company should be functioning more towards one end than the other.

If you are a high tech firm, creative agency, research, or brain trust, your success will depend, mostly, on how well you are able to perform at the creativity-related end of that continuum. If you are a company like FedEx, a supermarket, post office, bank, accounting firm, you would probably be far more to the other end.

Every organization needs some of both to thrive. The real questions are:

1. Where on that continuum should my organization be?
2. How close am I operating to that space?
3. What do I need to do to close any gaps?

When working with clients to identify the organization structure most effective for their success, we like to start with mapping out on the continuum line where they believe they should be, putting their emphasis and resources to align to their mission and strategies. Sometimes this entails a review and minor revision of the mission or values, and then, once all agreed, a more in-depth look at what strategies would be needed to get there. Whether it’s product development, services offered, or other outcomes, we work to get clear and definitive alignment on where the organization needs to be in order to most likely meet or exceed its goals.

Of course, all organizations consist of many pieces that might well have different priorities. Finance departments are almost always on the predictable, controllable results side and when they meet with R and D groups, who are on the other side, there can seem to be not only a difference of priorities, but also a cultural and, in some cases, even a language difference. This can lead to unnecessary conflict that can fester and be hard to resolve. However, if both parts of the organization could spend the time understanding the overall needs to assure success of the whole organization, they can better understand their differences of views and get past most of their otherwise inherent conflicts. It is not a surprise when we hear from R and D people that the finance people, who are asking them how much they need to budget for the next breakthrough product or idea, “just don’t get it” as budgeting for an unknown seems a ridiculous notion to them. At the same time, the finance people often see the resistance and inability to set a budget as a clear sign these people should not be allowed to spend any monies without close supervision.

These sorts of conflicts can usually be avoided from the beginning with the knowledge of why they are guided the way they are, or can be managed with some time taken to review the motivations for their actions and understanding of each others’ difficult roles to be played.

Many years ago, I had an assignment at ABC TV News in NYC. Two of the on air anchors were “at war” with each other and it was bleeding onto the TV screens and causing viewers to turn away. I was asked to try to mediate and resolve their conflict. So, I showed up for a lunch meeting at their offices. The lunch set-up was two large food areas, one marked “Talent” and the other “Not Talent”. As I walked up to the Not Talent side, I thought there might be a great deal of work here for me as it seemed there would be quite a bit of disgruntlement among the luncheon crowd. When I asked, “what does this Not Talent mean?” to my surprise not only was there not disgruntlement, there was relief that they were not part of the Talent. Turns out these terms were regularly used in that industry to indicate people who were on air (Talent) vs those whose jobs were to make the Talent be as beautiful, intelligent and charismatic as possible so the audiences would love them (Not Talent). Proudly, some of the Not Talent people explained that they were among the best Not Talent in the Industry, and had Emmy’s and other awards to prove it. Most of them had been there many, many years and had seen the Talent come and go with some alarming regularity as their popularity would inevitably wane with audiences.

That notion of “Talent” and “Not Talent” has stayed with me for over thirty years and it’s a guide as to what drives an organization to be successful. Recognizing which are “Talent” and which are not, becomes a very key ingredient in the structure of organizations, relative priorities of jobs, business processes and resource allocations. The placement of “Talent” on the time continuum needs to align with the success factors of the organization to meet its mission.

In one multi-billion dollar high tech firm, I met with the Sr. VP of Engineering and Product Development to identify who were his “Talent”. In a company of over 10,000 people, he could point to less than a dozen who, if they left, would severely hamper the whole company from meeting any of its long-term goals. We devised a special recognition plan for them that would both motivate them to reach higher accomplishments and retain them for the long term. Compensation opportunities based on hitting very stretch targets, along with a five year retention bonus at the end of a five year period were set up and when explained to each, individually, were seen as the highest form of recognition they’d ever received, greatly appreciated and in a couple of cases, a few tears were shed. None of them left, almost all of the stretch goals were realized and a new plan was devised for even more people seen as the top “Talent” for the ensuing five years.

Of course, the “Not Talent” is incredibly important for any organization’s success. As the ABC TV people said, they were the best Not Talent in the industry. Without that, it’s difficult for the Talent to be able to produce at the levels possible and therefore, taints the value of having the best talent.

So, going back to the time continuum, when you are clear of what the priorities for success need to be, it is far easier to be able to identify the relative value to the organization of skills and jobs, and to identify the “Talent” that needs to be nurtured, motivated and supported.

It’s sometimes difficult for the support organizations to realize they are the “Not Talent” (and not advisable to call them that) and this can sometimes lead to other issues. For some management teams, the notion of treating all employees the same overshadows the acknowledgment that there is, in fact, talent and not talent. When values dictate that this is the way the company will work, it’s still important to recognize what it will take to be able to exceed competition and allow the organization to thrive. Again, getting clarity as a whole group as to what drives the success of the organization is the key step to allow the other discussions to permeate the whole work force. It can definitely help to identify areas for outsourcing, sub-contracting, and resource allocations. The good of the whole is the driving force behind resolving such conflicts successfully, and doing it up front rather than once the conflicts have set in and become part of the DNA of an organization is a critical activity. If it hasn’t been done, or was done many years ago it needs to be reviewed, revised and re-supported by all. 

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