Basic Principles of Organizational Design: Part One

Sections of this topic

    Part One of the Basic Principles of Organizational Design

    In my last half-dozen posts I have been focusing on system theories of organization. I have done this because practitioners of organization development depend upon theories about what makes organizations tick. Nothing so practical as a good theory said Kurt Lewin, the mind behind action research. Well-thought-out theories help us sort patterns and produce hypotheses about how it all hangs together- this system before us. Good theories are a basis for action. As we test our theories we develop design solutions, which have to be tested. Organization development is a diagnostic process and a design process. This is designing change. . . . .

    Eight Organizational Design Principles: PART ONE

    Some years ago Albert Cherns, an important figure in the Norwegian work redesign efforts highlighted some important Principles of Social and Technical Systems Design. The Principles of Organization Design have been known for 30 years in the academic and consulting community. Knowing the principles and implementing them are clearly two different things. First, I will detail the principles and following that, I will highlight what has made the implementation so difficult.

    1. Complementarities:

    How we go about restructuring needs to be compatible with what we are trying to achieve by restructuring. The process of design must be complementary to the objectives. This means the design and implementation process is critical. If you want flexibility and participation within the work group as an output of the design, then how you go about designing the organization has to be flexible, interactive, and participatory.

    If the completed work system will depend upon high levels of meaningful flexibility in accomplishing the work, then it is through a process of meaningful flexibility that the system needs to be built. The “means” have to be complimentary with the “ends”. In other words, if you want a system where people assume responsibility, then people have to be responsibly involved in creating the work system or you won’t get it. We do not get participative highly effective organizations by fiat.

    2. Minimal Critical Specification:

    New technologies require people to learn and change. These abilities have to be developed through the work itself. Therefore, specify as little as possible concerning how tasks combine into jobs and how people are to interact within jobs. The creation of a well-designed work team must involve dialogue and decisions being made by the people involved. Most teams struggle from over-structure, which is based on job descriptions and compensation schemes, which result in “that’s not my job”. The trick in building a team that works is to specify no more than is absolutely necessary about the task or how jobs relate to the task, or how people relate to individual jobs. To build a high-performance team the rule is to FIX as little as possible. This means identifying and specifying no more than what is absolutely critical. Generally, the critical information is about the output expected. The vision of results is very important and has to be co-constructed with the group but more than anything you want to build an organic ability to learn and change into the team.

    3. Variance Control:

    Support and reward groups that deal with errors at the point of origin. Effective teams need legitimacy to find out where things go wrong and deal with variance where it occurs. The goal is to minimize exporting problems to others. The assumption that is safe to make is that people know what good work looks like. Exporting problems and unsatisfied customer needs is the mark of a team that lacks options.

    4. Clear Goals and Flexible Strategies:

    Define what is expected in terms of performance early and clearly and then support adaptations toward appropriate means by which the group can achieve ends. (Do not over-specify.) This is an adaptability principle, which recognizes that we are designing living systems rather than machines. With living systems, the same ends can be reached by different means. There are a lot of ways to solve problems and meet a customer’s needs. What is critical here is the definition and understanding of the end goal. The “What” is to be highly specified. The “How” is open to local decisions and initiatives. This enables learning and an increased sense of “efficacy” on the part of team members. Efficacy is the sense that we are effective as a team and that we can make a difference and do the job well. Efficacy is fragile and needs to be supported by continuous learning and improvement. High-performance teams constantly “tinker” with the means by which they accomplish their results. They seldom settle on “one best way”.

    (Be sure to read Part 2.)


    For more resources, see the Library topics Consulting and Organizational Development.


    Jim Smith has over 40 years of organization development experience in a wide range of organizations. He can be reached at