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How to keep your business on track with micro-level organizational design

Discover why micro-level organizational design is where the real design work begins. This article explains how to carry out micro design effectively, so your organization continuously optimizes business performance.

Published by Rupert Morrison 

Micro-level design is the real heart of the organizational design process. It involves defining all the elements of design across the organizational system, so that the macro-operating model can be implemented. I find the metaphor of constructing a building to explain the purpose of the macro and micro design phases useful.

Whereas macro-level organizational design is the equivalent of broad architectural plans and high-level blueprints, the micro-level design is like the engineering drawings: the measurements that show the required depth of foundation; practical details like heating, ventilation and air conditioning; and the cost estimates and confirmation of resources you need to actually build it.

Micro-level design is where you get into the detail and the work people really do day to day, where you think about how decisions are and should be made. It’s where you must decide how all the elements shown in the diagram below come together.

The organization system

Why macro design alone isn’t enough

Changing an organization can be terribly slow. It can take years to progress from the moment the macro design team determines what it wants to when the system is actually working. This is often because the macro design team’s vision isn’t sufficiently detailed for it to be implemented with enough momentum.

Many people can fall into the trap of thinking that because the macro design is clear in their own mind, it will just happen. But it doesn’t just happen. What’s more, most organizations don’t have the luxury of years and can’t just leave it to chance. You need to create a deliberate, detailed micro design that ensures the vision you articulated at the macro-level stage can be implemented at an accelerated pace.

The devil’s in the micro-detail of organizational design

My hypothesis for why so many organizations struggle to make headway is that they carry out elements of the micro-level design too infrequently. It’s essential that, once the design has been implemented, the organization continually monitors it to make perpetual gains in performance.

It’s interesting to note that these gains don’t necessarily need to be made through macro-level changes. In fact, more often than not, micro design changes are enough, as long as you make adjustments continuously to optimize performance.

The principal objective of organizational design is to have an efficient, productive business that delivers on its strategic plan by hitting a number of key objectives. To do this, you need to ensure you have the right people with the right skills doing the right work in the right numbers and in the right place. The micro-level design is where you make sure this can and does happen.

How micro design helps workforce planning

The work done for each element of the micro design is a major enabler of workforce planning, which ensures the organization manages the supply and demand of the workforce over time.

So many people I’ve spoken to over the years haven’t had a handle on their headcount, let alone understood the different roles in their organization. They’ve had no idea how many of each role there were and how they related to positions and people, as they hadn’t clearly defined roles with associated objectives, activities and competencies.

Without knowing how many full-time equivalents you need for each role, you can’t hope to feel confident that your organization is operating effectively. Far too often, organizations leave managers to muddle through these points long after the design implementation.

If you don’t make it clear what each role does and the competencies needed for each, you push the responsibility down to hundreds, if not thousands, of managers to work out the details in isolation. Inevitably, these managers will be primarily concerned with optimizing their bit of the organization, based on their personal drivers rather than those of the whole. In these circumstances, work is often duplicated or missed altogether.

Make use of specialist knowledge during the micro design stage

Micro-level organizational design is far more labour intensive and takes much longer than macro-level design. But without doing the micro design properly, it’s impossible to effectively communicate any changes in a way that employees will understand how they apply to them personally.

In the macro design, there are typically fewer people involved but those that are involved are usually more political and have greater impact. The micro-level design requires specialist knowledge, and who you decide to include in the design process will have a big impact on both the outcome and perception of the outcome.

To continue the building metaphor, one of the challenges for architecture is the degree of specialization. Those that do the initial concept drawings may well have nothing to do with the structural engineering or the interior design.

The same is true in an organization. Often it will be managers that you rely on to implement your design lower down the organization and to oversee those elements of the work. They will all have different expertise, drivers and ambitions, and this expertise needs to be leveraged and their biases managed.

Validate your case for change before you commit to micro design

People can find it hard to think beyond how an organization redesign is likely to impact them personally and their position on the organization chart. For this reason, using independent external support is a natural consequence for many change programs. The project management of the design process must be structured and tightly controlled.

Throughout the micro design stage, it’s important to keep returning to the design criteria and case for change that you defined during the macro design stage. Losing sight of these criteria will result in an organization you didn’t plan for. Just like in architecture, someone needs to keep an eye on the end-to-end solution. So, make sure you give people time to refer back to the macro design business case and verify that the detailed work you’re carrying out is consistent with those recommendations and commitments.

This article is an excerpt from Data-Driven Organization Design (2nd edition) by Rupert Morrison, founder of orgvue. The book breaks down the task of organizational design into three blocks: macro design, micro design and implementation. This excerpt is taken from chapter 2 of the book, which looks at how micro design can help rightsize your organization and overcome barriers to effective organizational design.

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