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Why do so many businesses forget that people change?

By Richard coughlin, PA business design expert

People change: we all need to accept it.

It's hardly a breakthrough insight to say that people change. We develop, we change our jobs, we move companies – it happens all the time.

Yet few organisations stop and think about the implication of this when they design their business operations. Too often, organisations are designed without any consideration of whether the natural cycles of staff development will enhance or damage the performance of the business.

However good the design of a business on day one, it will only work if the design can handle the natural change in the people within it.

I think there are two useful questions to ask yourself:

  1. Does this organisation naturally enable succession of capability – bringing through the next tier of managers and leaders as well as enabling the development of staff capability at all levels?

  2. Is the organisation too dependent upon the skills and knowledge of key individuals that will make it vulnerable to the loss of those individuals?

When addressing the first question, there is a tension between what is optimal for today with how things will develop over time. Flat, lean management structures are efficient and effective in the short term, however if applied clumsily, they can create major gaps between layers. This will make it tough for more junior staff to gain the experience needed to progress and create a problem when it comes to succession. It's still a good principle to design lean management structures, but in determining how accountability is shared across those, it is worth asking the question "are we enabling the next generation to develop the skills and experience they need to progress?"

Equally, tightly defined operational roles that don’t allow for skills, experience and role development will risk demotivating staff – driving up attrition and driving down performance.

When it comes to the second question of whether a design is too dependent on critical individuals, very often there is little choice in the short term. Sometimes it is inevitable that there will be pockets of the business where key people hold vital capabilities or knowledge – folk who know how antiquated legacy systems work, make up for gaps in formal process with their knowledge of how things work, and those with key relationships with customers or suppliers. These may be just a fact of life in the short term, but the design needs to recognise these and put in plans to reduce this reliance as quickly as it can. There are practical things such as better process definition or system mapping that can help, but there is also a design response. If there is critical knowledge or capabilities, they shouldn't reside in any one individual.

There will still be challenges ahead. Losing key people will always create some risk and key points of progression will always need managing, but if an organisation is designed with change in mind, it stands a much better chance of handling these transitions without damaging performance.

The natural dynamics of staff development can be anticipated and form part of the key criteria for any new design. Creating roles that can grow alongside managers and staff development, defining key progression roles that give future managers and leaders the chance to develop, and creating plans to reduce the dependence of scarce resources are all necessary steps.

Find out more about our work in business design.

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