The Skill of Org Design

I built my first organisation when I was in high school. It was a debate club, and it died the instant I graduated and left for university. I remember looking back on the experience and thinking to myself: “Hmm, this is interesting. How do you build an org that outlasts you?”

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

This was a compelling post. I have little experience with org design, yet my work in large orgs required a lot of organizational change management work, and enabling effective OCM is critical to my work now. Your description about managing org change resonated with me, as I have seen this screwed up (and of course I have made plenty of mistakes myself!)

2 main questions:

  • What OCM approaches are you familiar with, and which (if any) have you found effective in your experience?
  • Do you believe Holacracy could be modified to make it effective, or is it doomed to fail no matter what refinements may be made in it?

I hope to write on organizational structures for my work in the near future, yet the nature of the writing is that contexts are highly variable as you described. My initial thought is that using methods to keep unit structures small may be the key, as it requires less skill to shape effectively (as you called out).

I’d love to see more from you on this topic!


To be honest, I was only vaguely aware of OCMs (probably mentioned in passing in some business book I’d read back in the day) so I went and Googled for a few after you left your comment.

I do seem to use a few of the ones mentioned in this blog post!

For instance, Lewin’s, Kotter’s, ADKAR, Bridges, and Satir all seem like things that I do. Except that I don’t think of it like that — it’s all internalised at this point. I’m reminded of John Cutler’s observation, on product managers, that good product managers don’t talk about frameworks specifically, they just do them.

Similarly, I struggle a little with the change management frameworks because things are a lot more fluid in practice. For instance, sometimes the way you can get an org change to take is to simply empower a specific individual and shield them to do their work. Then, once they start showing results, you can loosen your grip on the shield, and promote the news of their accomplishments to the rest of the org/shape the org around them to give them more power/depower other parts of the org that might get in their way while creating this feedback loop that demonstrates results to other stakeholders. Then, only much later, when it’s legible to the rest of the org that this function is needed, you create more rigid processes around that person, so that the sub-team doesn’t fall apart when they leave/get promoted, etc.

This approach is entirely opportunistic. It depends on finding the right person and waiting for the right type of work. (And it also demands that you have a deep understanding of the existing org, and enough power to shield them). Also: by ‘right person’ I mean ‘the sort of person who would set the right tone for the work in that particular sub-team’ — meaning that when the time comes to build the explicit, rigid structures, the right ‘shape’ of the work would already have been uncovered. And the benefit of doing things like this is that you can move much faster than if you were following some explicit change model. (To emphasise, the key unlock there is that you don’t need to spend time thinking about structure up-front — you can just let the work mould the team initially, observe what comes out of it, and then structure later).

Another example where OCMs might not work so well is that sometimes you can temporarily guide org behaviour using culture, instead of something more rigid like policy/economic incentives. This is again useful because you can delay bureaucracy and preserve speed. I guess this is the ‘Nudge’ theory mentioned in the blog post above, which I think every good manager intuitively groks and actively uses.

But the knowledge of when to replace culture with rigid, solid policy is a matter of experience and judgment and taste. As I mentioned in the essay, I don’t have that much experience here, given that I’ve not scaled an org beyond 50 people. What I know: you don’t want implicit culture to be load-bearing once you hit a certain scale.

Of course this begs a different question: is explicit culture more load-bearing? The answer is yes, slightly. And studying the methods/rituals that companies use to transmit culture at scale is a different blog post entirely.

Explicit Structure

Another reader messaged me after reading this piece and talked explicit functional structures in a company. Apparently this is taught in most MBA programs. (For a good, nuanced example, see Steven Sinofsky’s discussion of different types of org structures).

This is a really interesting topic. I told my friend that I never really liked the discussion of org structure alone because that I’ve always thought it was too reductive — the org structure is simply the most legible part of the org, and it doesn’t give you enough information about what’s possible. (It can give you ideas, though!)

If you dig further, you’ll often find that the org structure for some org works because of an existing culture, or the path dependent process that the company took to get to that point. Like: perhaps it’s structured that way because some senior person decided to move back to Singapore, and then the company decided to open a new office around that person because that person was too important to lose, and then the org design adapted to that.

Also, sometimes you copy a certain org structure, and then what happens is that you find that it comes with non-obvious trade-offs, and those trade-offs turn out to be a great fit for the original company that came up with it, but a terrible one for your context.

Sorry, I realise I can go on about this topic.

I think you could modify elements of Holacracy to make it work, but then would it still be called Holacracy? :smiley:


Just flipped through the HN comments a little bit and it reminded me why I don’t post anywhere on public forums anymore.

@cedric - what, if anything, did you learn from the little comments kerfuffle that ensued when that post went viral?

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My joke is that I know my mental health is bad when I respond to stupid comments on hacker news. In this case, I took a week off after responding to fix my sleep :sweat_smile:

The fact that I’d responded and was annoyed by the comments was a pretty good sign that I needed time off.

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