How Failure Can Help You Design a Better Organization

Have you ever designed some degree of failure into your organization design? In most Organizational Design projects, the idea of failing, much less building some degree of failure in upfront, amounts to nothing short of heresy. We all know that failure can help us learn more than success, but the idea of designing and accounting for some degree of failure upfront is admittedly a hard sell, especially when it impacts your people.

Ideo is a pioneer for Design Thinking, which is a methodology and approach to create innovative solutions to complex issues. It’s intriguing that Ideo’s Organizational Design group advocates prototyping an organizational change, which takes the Design Thinking methods & approach and applies them to OD. The focus is on designing on a small scale to come up with the minimum viable organization – e.g., the minimal structure & design required before testing & prototyping to see how it works. One of the most interesting points of value in this approach is to go quickly to a solution and test out what works, what doesn’t and what’s left that must be designed in order to scale effectively. The approach is broken into three distinct phases:

  1. Mobilize – inspire people to accept the change
  2. Pioneer – prototype & show what it can look like
  3. Scale – grow from there to the rest of the organization and eventually transform.

To me, this philosophy connects well with one of the key tenets of Agile methodology in the IT world, failing fast. As part of the agile process, the technical team creates user stories to define outcomes and create the minimum viable product – the most basic solution to meet the business needs. It gets implemented as a result of (typically) “sprints” that are short cycles of development and implementation – enabling you to take small steps toward a larger business solution. In each case, implementing something small scale allows you to identify what’s not working and “fail fast” vs. huge investments of time and money into a technical solution that may or may not work for the business. By failing fast, you learn what works and correct incrementally along the way, ensuring the final product is one that truly meets the needs of the business.

So what would failing fast mean when you’re designing your organization? If done the right way, it can help you:

  • Minimize time, effort & resources upfront
  • Flesh out your design based on the real-world business reality (vs. trying to anticipate everything in advance and predict outcomes)
  • Identify and understand things that you couldn’t have predicted
  • Prove (& disprove) some of your assumptions about business case, objectives and outcomes

Finally, the overall theme of starting small and building a solution incrementally also has hugely positive benefits in managing your overall change. Using these approaches to an organization design & an IT solution allows you to:

  • Engage users upfront in a meaningful way by finding users to pilot a new IT solution or a small part of the organization to go first into your new structure
  • Enable stakeholders in your change network to design key details of the solution that they will own
  • Identify & share stories in a transparent way about the key changes users will experience and the benefits that will result.

Sheri Browning is a Partner at PeopleResults. You can reach her at or on Twitter @sbPResults.