Every company’s situation is unique, and therefore the right design for one company will probably not work for others, even within the same industry. But the symptoms of having the wrong organizational design are regrettably common. They include business units and functions that protect their own domain’s priorities to the detriment of the overall business, hoarded or wasted resources, strategic goals without follow-through, and a culture that dismisses or ignores accountability. These problems are not just a matter of personal ill will, incompetence, external pressure, or cultural resistance. They exist because organizational design determines behavior. When a company’s organizational forms are inconsistent with the broader objectives of the business, that misalignment affects the day-to-day actions of individual employees. It leads perfectly competent people to chronically underperform. Conversely, a company with a strong link between its strategy and its organizational design can, like an engine firing on thousands of cylinders instead of a few, generate energy and creativity at all levels.
Even when leaders recognize that their problems are organizational, they try to solve them in ineffective ways, by making rapid, reactive changes to the organizational structure. They shift the “lines and boxes” of the org chart, or divide up responsibilities differently. They may also force a few recalcitrant leaders to resign, sending an implicit message to current executives: “If you can’t deliver, I’ll get someone who will.” But these fixes don’t address the actual cause of underperformance: a misaligned organizational design.
At Seabright, Joanna was able to diagnose the problem because she had seen it at other companies. By making a few major changes to the organizational design, she could enable the new strategy to deliver. Given a job this big, the main question was where to start.
Designing for Strategic Fit
How do you translate a business strategy into an organizational design? How can you connect the dots between company-wide objectives and the concrete details of reporting relationships, information flows, decision rights, and social networks? The answer is not obvious. Figuring it out requires a new way of thinking about organization: what might be called organizing for essential advantage. “Essential advantage,” in this context, refers to the creation of meaningful, lasting value for customers. Although mission statements and lists of business objectives are plentiful, it’s rare to find a statement that explains precisely how a company creates value. As described in several recent books—notably, The Essential Advantage: How to Win with a Capabilities-Driven Strategy, by Paul Leinwand and Cesare Mainardi (Harvard Business Review Press, 2011)—these statements can be distilled down to two elements: a “way to play” and a system of differentiating capabilities. The way to play is how a company engages with the market, its fundamental value proposition. For example, some companies choose to distinguish themselves as innovators, continually introducing new products and services, whereas others are value providers, offering their products or services at an attractive price point. Capabilities are cross-functional combinations of technology, processes, skills, and mind-sets that work together synergistically. Differentiating capabilities are the few (typically, three to six) capabilities that enable a company to stand out from competitors and consistently provide value for its chosen customers that no one else can match.
A successful company doesn’t gain its way to play and capabilities system by accident. Like an athlete picking a game he or she can win, and then honing skills to play that game more successfully, the company seeking a strategy looks to build on its strengths and its prospective market opportunities by choosing the path that encompasses both. Inevitably, this means choosing not to pursue some directions. That’s a difficult decision for many companies, particularly those in rapidly evolving sectors, which have many opportunities and few certainties. Nonetheless, being clear and consistent about where to play and where not to play is a necessary step toward building a coherent strategy, where everything the company does fits well together.