Departments, collaboratives and projects: how organisations maximise their impact - RSA

Blog: Departments, collaboratives and projects - how organisations maximise their impact


  • Leadership

In my last two posts I have explored ideas that emerged from a partnership project with the education company Pearson. The project was inspired by Pearson’s global commitment to efficacy in developing and providing products and services that ‘help people make progress in their lives through learning’.

In my first post I offered a checklist of the strengths and potential pitfalls of a focus on efficacy. In the second I explored a dichotomy which has emerged in our work between one type of efficacy (technical, focusses on interventions) and a second (holistic, focusses on systems), and I added a third (agile, focusses on emergent change). I suggested that all three forms (or paradigms) of efficacy have roles to play that we should seek to combine them but that this is difficult because of the inherent tensions between them.   

Today I want to explore what kind of organisational form best enables all three efficacy paradigms to be in play in a way that is complimentary and builds powerful impact. 

The question of organisational design has grown in significance for the RSA as we have thought more deeply about the barriers to social change. We have featured big organisational thinkers and radical organisational innovators in our lecture programme. And, of course, as a chief executive myself, I spend a lot of time thinking about how the RSA can be as effective and innovative as possible. 

Much of the debate about organisational design revolves around a clash between convention and idealism. The conventional organisational form of hierarchy and functional departments continues to predominate; while among reformers and organisational gurus the call is for flatter, more devolved, network based forms. Those coming afresh to this debate might think its contours are new; in reality it has been going on in various forms for decades.

My inclination is to support the reformers against the status quo but it is hard to avoid the question ‘if the advice has for so long been against conventional organisational forms (indeed reformers assert that these forms are deeply inefficient) why have they managed so doggedly to persist?’. This, in part, is why I have ended up adopting a more pluralistic approach, one which reflects the three ideas of efficacy I described in my last post. 

My proposition is therefore that the most effective organisation is one which combines the forms of organisation most suited respectively to technocratic, systemic and agile models of efficacy. 

In practice this means we need to live with and love aspects of functional hierarchy (best suited to technocratic efficacy), while also promoting forms of cross cutting working which allows a focus on whole people and whole systems, and putting at the centre of day to day practice goal-oriented project teams with the freedom to be agile and adaptive. 

Simples huh? Sadly, not really at all: Because each organisational paradigm also brings with it dysfunctional potentials which have to be guarded against. Functional hierarchies with their tendencies toward bureaucracy, departmentalism and overbearing control, are always seeking to dominate the organisation. They are relatively easy to represent (the classic pyramid organogram), they tend to be the basis for vital individual concerns like career development (people more often aspire to move up than across), performance management and pay. And, of course, they give leaders a sense (albeit often illusory) of control. This is one reason why when we go into organisations that claim not to be hierarchical we often find that, rather than being good at abolishing hierarchy, they have merely become good at hiding it.

In contrast to the ubiquity of hierarchy, when it comes to the second efficacy paradigm with its focus on whole organisations, whole people and whole systems most organisations need to do more to create the right forums. Here at the RSA we have created ‘change aim teams’ which bring several people from across the organisation to explore overall effectiveness, alignment and collegiality in our three impact areas (Public Services and Communities, Creative Learning and Development, and Economy Enterprise and Manufacturing). 

Partly because they bring people together with different skills, perspectives and experiences these collaborative fora have their limits. They tend to be good, inclusive, places for mission and commitment to be renewed, for collective insights to develop, for ideas to emerge and for differences to surface and be explored. Arguably, they are less good for making decisions or providing critical scrutiny. There is a brain storming aspect to these fora and, as research shows, brainstorms are good at generating ideas but less good at distinguishing good ones from bad ones.   

Finally, agile efficacy (what we call ‘emergent impact’) is best served by project groups. These groups, convened and led on a case by case basis, seek to achieve a specific outcome. They have clear parameters (membership, timescale, resources) but within this what matters is the outcome and they are able to adapt as their work unfolds and the context changes. Project groups are the most creative, agile and, generally, fulfilling organisational form in which to work, which is why many of the most innovative organisations (from Gore-Tex to Battersea Arts Centre) have project teams as their primary unit. 

However, project teams too have their challenges, principal among which is accountability. The danger is that in their focussed enthusiasm they lose alignment and effectiveness. When they go well and are given their head project teams can be dynamic and innovative but they will also, by the same token, have a reasonably high failure rate. Without the right safeguards the rest of the organisation may realise things have gone wrong too late to avoid the failure of a team having ramifications that go well beyond the project itself. In other words, the work of project teams needs to be checked against more systemic goals and light touch forms of hierarchical oversight.

Efficacy is a powerful tool which needs to be handled with care. Efficacy comes in different forms each with their own strengths. The core challenge in organisations seeking to maximise efficacy may be to reconcile and combine these different models in a single organisational form. When the right balance is found – what Charles Leadbeater calls ‘creative communities with a cause’ organisations can be superconductors for human creativity. 

But, rest assured, even when such a balance is found it probably won’t last long. Whatever management consultants might promise, maximising organisational efficacy is not about imposing a blueprint and waiting for the rewards, it is about carefully balancing different models of change while remaining vigilant to the inherent fragility of that balance. 

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