Technological innovation has been rampant for much of the last few hundred years, but bar a bit of tinkering around the edges, the way our organizations are set up and behave has remained fairly static.
Whilst there has been a growing appreciation for the value of experimentation in terms of innovation, it has proven a much harder sell in terms of experimenting with organizational design and behavior.
One attempt to change that has been launched recently, with the rollout of Harvard Business School’s Organizational Lab. The first step is moving away from reorganization for the sake of reorganization, towards something that’s more structured and focused.
“If we, the HBS faculty, are going to claim that we have theories about organizations that are practical and relevant for the parties who are running those organizations, then we should try to see if we can break the cycle with something that lets an organization learn over time,” the team says. “And that would seem to be a more experimental approach than a planned approach.”
The concept, which seems to bare similarities with the Management Innovation Exchange launched by Gary Hamel a few years ago, has thus far received around 40 or so problems from people. Each of the problems has been difficult to overcome in no small part due to the organizational structure in their company.
The concept is born out of the challenges in changing things when data is scarce. Most organizations have plenty of data concerning the past, but that offers little assistance to how the future might unfold.
This is where the experiments come in as it allows managers to test out hypotheses on a small scale to secure the kind of data that can support decision making.
Suffice to say, the o-Lab is as much about finding new theories about organizational structure as it is producing workable solutions for members, and it remains to be seen whether either of those goals will actually materialize.
The hope is however that as the number of experiments increases, the number of insights will rise in unison. Given the complexities involved in organizational theory, however, there will be challenges in even honing in on a single target to tackle.
Indeed, the very act of experimenting with one's organizational structure may be a positive result in itself, as the o-Lab team explains.
“Too many people assume their organization’s structure is a given,” they say. “It’s kind of the way I assume it’s a given that I can’t move this desk. So, I don’t try. But if you were to give me a desk made out of Legos, I might move the Legos around. I’m kind of used to moving Legos around because I have a three-and-a-half-year-old. So the o-Lab is about that: Gee, if we could break an assumption and provide the tool kit and get a community of support around it, maybe we could get more experiments done, and we could make more progress as a result.”
It’s an interesting project and worth keeping an eye on if you’re interested in organizational design and structure. You can learn a bit more about o-Lab via the video below.