Design Notes

Redesigning a Justice-Committed Organization, Part Two

Here we explore how to replace the traditional, vertical, functional design with which so many organizations are struggling. We outline four phases of design thinking starting with getting very clear on what you want your design to accomplish.

5 Minutes

by Jeanne Bell and Dan Tucker, Co-Founders

Image: Catherine Shea, artist, San Miguel de Allende, MX

Blog No. 6 - December 2023 (Part 2 of a 3-Part Blog Series)

In Blog 1 of this three-part series, we argued that justice strategies–and thus justice-committed organizations–are inherently more horizontal than the creators of the traditional, vertical organizational design below ever envisioned or meant to support.

Traditional Functional Design

Now, in part two of the series, we outline four phases of a just organizational design starting with getting very clear on what you want your design to accomplish. 

Step One: Name and Commit to Your Design Intentions

What do you want from your organizational design? This is the first question to answer before (re)designing anything. Your design choices should tether to an explicit set of intentions for the organization. The five design intentions we see most frequently in justice-committed organizations are:

Strategic Alignment

The organization-wide experience of activating clear, bold strategies in service of a shared purpose.

Equity, Inclusion, and Influence

Diverse voices are consistently included and influential in the organization’s strategic conversations and decision-making.

Distributed and Accelerated Decision-making

Decision-making is distributed to well-configured groups most knowledgeable about the subject matter; across the organization, decisions are named, executed, and evaluated in a rigorous and continuous fashion.

Leadership Development

Emerging leaders have consistent access to strategic conversations, decision-making processes, and role-modeling by seasoned leaders.

Management Team Rationale

The staff leadership body has a vital purpose; members feel compelled by rather than ambivalent about their organizational stewardship role.

A caution: this is not a time for lip-service or appropriating the latest leadership discourse; in exploring organizational redesign, leaders must face one another and get very clear about how they want the organization to feel and function. Does each of you on the leadership team want everything listed above? Only some of the items? Others we have not listed? A lack of specificity and shared commitment to your design intentions will lead to incoherent design choices that confuse and frustrate your staff. Take your time here.

Step Two: Orient Your Design to Organizational Purpose & Strategy

The traditional, vertical triangle above with which we are all so familiar (and frustrated) designs the organization around who’s in charge of decision-making and around like groups of functional work. That orientation is unlikely to fully satisfy the design intentions you named above. 

In a justice-committed context, organizational design starts with—and cannot proceed successfully without—working clarity on two things:

  1. organizational purpose
  2. organizational strategies to pursue that purpose

We say “working clarity” because it is common given the pace and complexity of today’s operating climate for there to be something emerging and/or waning in organizational purpose and/or strategy; that’s good; it means the organization is adapting. But design work is not successful when there are profound unresolved questions of organizational purpose or when most of an organization's core strategies for realizing that purpose remain unsocialized or theoretical. 

Most justice-committed organizations have gone through an evolution in purpose and/or core strategies over the last 3-5 years. We cannot assume that everyone in leadership, on staff, on the board has truly reckoned with the implications of newer strategies for the way the organization is structured. Indeed, it’s likely that you drafted new strategies and sent them back to a legacy structure not created with them in mind. This is a primary source of conflict and ineffectiveness in our organizations.

Step Three: Assess the Gaps in Your Current Design

We now have 3 design inputs against which to assess your current structure:

  1. design intentions
  2. organizational purpose
  3. organizational strategies

Bring these three elements together in one document or slide deck with your current organizational structure and sit together as a leadership group to discuss these questions:

  • On the face of it, is our current structure designed to meet our design intentions?
  • Digging deeper, is our current structure designed to attract, engage, and retain diverse, talented, justice-committed leaders at all levels?
  • On the face of it, is our current structure designed to fully activate our strategies?
  • Digging deeper, what strategic work is not getting done or done consistently well in our current structure’s design?
  • Where do we need collaboration from multiple functional teams to activate our current strategies? That is, where can we benefit from cross-functional groups? 
  • Where is decision-making happening well? Where are decisions slow and/or bottle-necked across our current structure?

Step Four: Iterate Your Organizational Design

Think about organizational design as the “right relationship” between three core elements:

  1. individual roles, e.g. Director of Programs
  2. functional groups, e.g. Fundraising
  3. cross-functional groups, e.g. Executive Leadership Group, Strategic Initiative(s), Evaluation & Learning

A note about #3. Cross-functional groups are essential in justice-committed organizations; design intentions of equity, strategic alignment, leadership development, and accelerated decision-making call for these non-traditional configurations. Normalizing and supporting cross-functional collaboration and decision-making is a central leadership opportunity and challenge for executives today.

To better activate your design intentions, organizational purpose, and strategies, you will likely need to make design adjustments in all three areas: roles, functional groups, and cross-functional groups. But, caution! Making individual changes in any of these areas without communicating fully what is driving your design choices and how you intend to support people in making these pivots never works

The image below captures how a justice-committed organization might design their organization differently than the traditional, vertical triangle.

A Just Organizational Design

This structure positions organizational purpose and strategy as the central design forces for the organization rather than traditional notions of hierarchy. That said, it is not “flat.” There are people with greater accountability than others for ensuring organizational relevance: namely executive team and board. Still, this is a fundamental reorientation to design: it is a structure purpose-built to activate justice strategies with a specific emphasis on equitable access to strategic conversations and decision-making.

In the final blog in this 3-part series, we’ll share more guidance on how to implement this just organizational design. In the meantime, we welcome your questions and comments. We also invite you to sign up for our monthly blog here.

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