Learning Journal – Organisational Design with Dave Snowden and friends

3 Big Ideas

  1. Design scaffolding for your organisational interventions.
  2. Focus on Sympoietic Systems rather than Autopoietic Systems
  3. Understand the temporal nature of your organisational design interventions


“Management interventions often destroy value that already existed.”

“Adaptive Capacity is like a budget. When you use it all the organisation can become very rigid and freeze. Similar to our fear capacity. As we increase fear humans can freeze. Creating the right amount of Adaptive Capacity within an organisation is important” Jabe Bloom

1 Action

One action I will take as a result of this learning is:

  • Investigate Energy Gradients further in Complex systems

***NOTES FROM PART 1 & 2***

Informal vs Formal Networks

  • Both exist within an organisation
  • Majority of organisational learning (70%) happens in the informal networks
  • Learn to amplify and foster informal networks. Risk many organisations do is dampen them instead
  • Trust
    • Automatic within Informal Networks (Because people can opt-in or out)
    • High energy cost to create trust within a formal network. Conditions are not present for trust to emerge easily.
  • Example to foster Informal Networks: Create an attractor that pulls people into the system then distribute the cognition across the organisation
  • Informal networks act as Scaffolding

Organisational Energy Gradients:

  • Lower energy gradients enable faster learning
  • Higher energy gradients its harder to learn and change

Temporal Categorisation of organisational design interventions:

  • Stable – Intended to be fixed over time once introduced
  • Plastic – Change over time
  • Ephemeral – Lasts for a very short amount of time. Not valuable after intervention

Categorisation is important:

  • Avoids over investment in intervention – Don’t over invest Ephemeral interventions. They are meant to be throw away
  • Easier to add to organisations than remove. Easier to scale than descale. Removing roles, titles, badges, rules, policies is very difficult
  • As a result Ephemeral interventions are the hardest. Be careful to dispose of the intervention (Take the scaffolding down)

Common trap: Hope Despair Cycle

  • Caused by designing for an ideal target state then trying to move towards that. You will end up in a hope and despair cycle
  • Instead define starting conditions and let the design emerge with a sense of direction
  • Evolve from the present moment not an ideal end state
  • Understand the conditions of the present moment. For example, your existing constraints
  • Spotify Example – Set organisation principles and let the design emerge
  • How things connect are more important than what they are

Crisis Management Golden Rules:

  1. Coordinate in centre, don’t make decisions. Distribute cognition and decision making.
  2. Communicate by engagement. Don’t communicate to people, engage in the problem with people so you can understand it. Disintermediation. Got to gemba.


  • Manufacturing Metaphor is pervasive and leads to perverse results
  • Organisations are more like an ecological system than manufacturing systems

Focus on Sympoietic Systems rather than Autopoietic Systems

  • Multi-team rather than individual teams
  • Connectons between teams rather than single units


Three types of team interactions:

  1. Collaboration – working together on discovery
  2. Service – provision of service between teams
  3. Facilitating – diagnosing issues, providing temporary support. Coaching mentoring guiding. Often SME’s

Boundary spanning is important. Middle managers can often perform this role well.

Organisational Scaffolding Examples:

  • Free breakfast for staff
  • Daily Stand Up
    • Both examples create the scaffolding for collaboration
    • Rituals in a physical space create connections
      • Example: Clap for carers in UK
    • Can scaffolding be designed or does it need to emerge?

Distribute cognition and decision making:

  • Put the power of organisational design into the power of people. Allow the design to emerge through self organisation.
  • Provide patterns and constraints to teams from which they can self-organise.
  • Avoid the grand design by management
  • People with the talent are excluding from the the process of organisational design
  • Managers want to make change happen rather than listening and understanding the system. Management interventions often destroy value that already existed.

Typical traps in traditional organisation design:

  • Mediation – Senior management abstracted from org design (often by consultants)
  • Cognition is not distributed (Analysts design the organisation in silo)
  • Working at abstract level rather than granular

Conflicting Goals:

  • Conflicting optimisation goals exist in organisation (vertical vs horizontal)
  • Utilisation problem – we max people out which increase the time to deliver and size of queue

Other soundbites:

  • If you give people data they will form conclusions too fast. Pattern will emerge in mind and then ignore subsequent data if it doesn’t conform to the belief created
  • The rules that worked at a small scale won’t work as the organisation scales. The solution is not linear.
  • If you can’t say why you can’t scale what
  • Create self-organising multi team systems – one self organising team is not sufficient
  • Organisational design should Optimise delivery value in eyes of customer
  • Identity is different from individuals. Within organisations we are often working with identities not individuals.
  • Crews – https://www.researchgate.net/publication/227019144_Crews_A_Distinct_Type_of_Work_Team
  • Be aware of the corporate immune system – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Corporate_immune_system
  • False belief – if we just had better leaders our organisational will be better


Flaws with Traditional OD

  • OD traditional founded in Cybnetics model which is flawed
  • The issue is, it’s they’re they’re focused on designing the endpoint now you can’t do that in a complex system so you can’t design a fluid system. What you can do is you can manage the constraints.


  • Hierarchy is an important constraint – without a hierarchy there wouldn’t be Mavericks in friction in the system
  • Within a crisis hierarchy, chain of command, becomes vital
  • Hierarchy can create a healthy “back pressure” effect – If we don’t make this decision the manager will

Adaptive Capacity

  • Organisational Design should increase the Adaptive Capacity. The ability for an organisation to respond to change.
  • Adaptive Capacity is like a budget. When you use it all the organisation can become very rigid and freeze. Similar to our fear capacity. As we increase fear humans can freeze. Creating the right amount of Adaptive Capacity within an organisation is important
  • Low/Stable Environmental (Market forces, Societal issues etc.) Pressure – Organisation does not need much adaptive capacity. They can continue to make small adjustments as needed to the enable change.
  • High/Unstable Environmental Pressure – Organisation needs high adaptive capacity. Ability to refocus energy around a challenge quickly. Ability to reform the organisation around that challenge. Organisations with low adaptive capacity will quickly use up their available “adaptive budget” and freeze. Highly adaptive organisations can sense their environmental pressure and respond. They can also sense when the environment has changed and they can move back to more stable design.
  • How to create fluid structures? Especially when everything else in the organisation is rigid?

Decision Making:

  • Senior executives think their productivity is decision making
  • Product Owner is typically not  an effective role as other managers within the system over rule decisions.
  • There’s no such thing as a dysfunctional system. It is set up perfectly to get the results it’s getting so it serves somebody in some way
  • There’s a point where you reach a level of crisis, where consultation is effectively, an inhibiting constraint, not, enabling constraint
  • Big challenge today is so many people in senior positions have no experience in the functions of their teams. There are many general managers with no experience of how the work works. So they can only make decisions based on the centre of a normal distribution. So the minute you hit an environment where the distribution isn’t normal anymore they just lost, where some of you grown up in the environment would know what to do.
  • Part of the decentralisation of decision making is to re-skill the individuals who need to make decisions in order to increase the adaptive capacity of the organisation for times in which challenges occur

Challenges with “outsourcing” Organisational Design

  • Many big consultancies drive off the belief that “if you design your organisation like x, you will get the results company y are getting”
  • Big consultancies drive towards homogenous, monocultural organisational design. “Industry standards and consistency”
  • Dependency relationship is formed between the consultancy and the organisation
  • Many HR\OD departments have the CEO in a Stockholm syndrome relationship

Other Soundbites:

  • If something is sustainable in the informal system the energy cost of making it formal is very low. Whereas if something isn’t naturally present in the system the energy cost of creating it is very high.


What is a Product? Oh no! Not another Product definition

Image result for product owner

Product Backlog, Product Owner, Product Management, Minimum Viable Product. These are just a few examples of how product is referenced across agile literature.

Despite it’s frequency, one of the most common questions I’m asked: What is a Product?

This is a critical question, especially for organisations who look to become product centric, organising their teams and delivery around their core products. These organisations may establish Product Owners so it’s sensible to think, what product will these people own.

There are many definitions such as this and this. In fact, I’ve used both definitions and I even have my own definition.

However, I’ve learned that these definitions don’t really help.

It may help individuals but organisations need shared understanding to become a product centric organisation.

Reframing the question: How do we define product?

Shared understanding does not come through a definition you found on the internet, writing it down on confluence or debating your perspective.

The question requires dialogue, not debate.

In dialogue participants open themselves up to the possibility there may be a different perspective they have not considered. They listen actively and question to help the group to learn collectively. The result is a shared mental model co-created by the group.

Debate Dialogue
assumes there is a right answer – and I have it. assumes that many people have pieces of the answer and that together, they can craft a solution.
is combative – participants attempt to prove the other side wrong is collaborative – participants work together toward common understanding
I defend my own views against those of others  I admit that others’ thinking can improve my own
entails listening to find flaws and make counter arguments entails listening to understand and find meaning and agreement.
I defend my assumptions as truth I reveal my assumptions for reevaluation

From The Magic of Dialogue by Daniel Yankelovich

For leaders attempting to become an agile, product centric organisation, the first step is dialogue.

Bring your key leaders together, with a skilled facilitator, to create your shared answer: What is a Product?