Most people, when asked, would share they want to work in a better organization. And, most organizational leaders would like to improve their company. How to accomplish both objectives is answered by organizational design. Product managers and innovators have an important role in this. The cross-functional nature of product management uniquely equips product managers to make significant impacts not only on product strategy but the organization as a whole. For those who desire organizational-level influence, product managers need to become organization architects.
To learn about becoming an organizational architect, I interviewed John Latham, who is a social scientist and organizational architect with over 35 years of experience helping organizations improve their performance. Some of his clients include Boeing, Kawasaki, Tata, The Ritz-Carlton, British Airways, Motorola, Department of Energy and Lockheed Martin. John has deeply researched leadership and organizational design. His award-winning research has appeared in several journal articles including IDSA’s Innovation journal and the American Society for Quality.
In this interview, you will learn:
- what it means to be an organizational architect,
- why product managers are uniquely equipped to become organizational architects, and
- how to accomplish this.
Practices and Ideas for Product Managers, Developers, and Innovators
Summary of questions discussed:
- What has been your path to helping organizations transform for higher performance and to become the organization the leaders and employees really want? There’s really no established career path for transforming organizations and that’s one of the many parallels with the listeners who are product managers. There’s no established career path or university degree that you can go get. My first interest in these kinds of things – the interaction between people, processes and technology was when I was teaching at a flight simulator and we were tasked with developing a cockpit resource management training program, which essentially was the combination of leadership, team dynamics, and problem solving in a high-speed environment with both a technical system (the airplane) and an external environment which was often unpredictable. I became very interested in team dynamics and leadership and how all that interacted with the situation. After that I became interested in organizations in general and encountered the same issues. I was involved with process improvement initiatives back in the quality movement in the ’80s and ’90s and this led me pretty quickly to overall organization assessment and improvement using performance excellence models like the Baldrige Criteria and other models that address everything from leadership and strategy and customer market focus to people processes and information and analysis. I also spent a lot of time working with and researching successful organizations and how they did the transformation and sustained it.
- You’ve written several books and articles – including ones that have won prominent awards for their contributions to this area of organizational transformation. In an article published in “Innovation” from the Industrial Designers Society of America (IDSA), you shared “Most organizations are like VCR’s blinking 12:00. They are poorly designed, out of date, and ill-prepared to survive, let alone thrive, in the modern environment.” What did you mean by that statement? There’s plenty of great organizations out there, but I’ve seen many that have a ton of documents, procedures, and artifacts that nobody really reads or pays attention to. It reminded me of all the features and functions that used to be on the VCR that didn’t get used. We used play, stop, record, and rewind. These were the essential features and everything else was only desired by a few sophisticated users. Well, the evidence is clear that organizations underperform and most people don’t want to work for the organizations as they’re currently designed. The latest Gallup Research employee engagement survey showed about 32% of employees are engaged – about a third. The other two-thirds are not. And, over 50% of the employees in most organizations are looking for another organization to work for. With that, innovation is suffering.
- Organizations have tried numerous tools for improving organizational performance – Six Sigma, TQM, ISO, etc. How is organization design different from these techniques? Companies have successfully used those techniques but many more companies have not used them successfully. They attempt to redesign or improve a process or an aspect of the organization. It’s the rare organization that does consider all the other important factors, such as the culture when they’re using those tools. That’s one of the fundamental differences with my approach to organization design – I consider the entire organizational system. The alignment between the different areas of the organizational system is the fundamental difference. The research I did with CEOs included asking what they would have done differently and one said, “Oh, that’s easy. I would have aligned the organization much faster, much quicker, or sooner.” That is where the real power is – a force multiplier.
- So, what is organization design? Organization design involves the alignment of four cornerstones: (1) stakeholders, (2) strategy, (3) system, and (4) scorecard. The first is creating value for multiple stakeholders. Stakeholders include six groups: customers, employees, investors, suppliers and partners, local community, and the natural environment. I discussed this and the others in more detail on my Organization Design Studio website at http://organizationdesignstudio.com/about/.
- In my Product Mastery Roadmap, the master level is product managers influencing the success of the organization. Let’s talk about how product managers fit into organization improvement and design. Being an organization architect is combining both science and art, if you will, taking what we know about how the pieces of the system work and combining that with design thinking or creativity to re-imagine and reinvent the organization. Being an organization architect really requires three essential pieces. One, a systems perspective, which I’ve already addressed. Two, leadership, because you’re changing the way people do things. Three, it requires imagination, creativity, design thinking, or knowledge of design. I can not think of a group of professionals better prepared for the role of organization architect than product managers.
- What are first steps a product manager should take to become an organization architect? They have the foundation needed because of their experience and influence as a product manager. Two additional pieces are needed: (1) a flexible leadership framework they can use to create their own leadership capability that is unique to them and their organization, and (2) a design framework to guide them in designing an improved organization. Both frameworks are on my Organization Design Studio website, in the free content library.
- John’s Organization Design Studio with free resources for designing and improving the organization you want.
- John’s LinkedIn profile.
“What is lacking is not insightful analysis, but truly bold and imaginative alternatives to the management status quo—and an army of innovators who have the stamina to reinvent management from the ground up.” – Gary Hamel, The Future of Management
Listen Now to the Interview
Raw TranscriptTEI061-John Latham
Thank you for being an Everyday Innovator and learning with me from the successes and failures of product innovators, managers, and developers. If you enjoyed the discussion, help out a fellow product manager by sharing it using the social media buttons you see below.