The difference between Organizational Design and Organizational Development

As an organizational consultant and a student of organizational behaviour, one of the most common questions I often get asked is the difference between organizational design and organizational development. People often confuse the two terms, thinking they’re either the same or worse, assuming that organizational development should fall under the learning & development initiatives within the HR department of an organization.

To correctly understand the terms, we also need to bring in the third critical aspect from a consultant’s point of view — change management. All organizations gearing for transformations have to go through the change process, followed by a phase where things are being put in order or structured before transitioning to the maintenance phase.

The process of change is where “change management” happens, following which organizational consultants focus on structuring and designing the organization for maximum effectiveness and success. As you can imagine, the two processes take a helluva time and effort to deliver and often go on for months.

After such a massive undertaking, the big question is this — how do we ensure that the changes we’ve made stick? And that’s where organizational development steps in to reinforce the purpose, methodology, culture, and the way forward for everyone within the organization.

It will be simplistic to call organizational development just “training” or facilitated learning or learning & development. Organizational Development is a beast of its kind and is critical to the success of any transformation initiative. It’s grossly underrated, though, thanks to the billions of trainers and coaches out there who’ve made the entire process of development a joke! Development isn’t a piecemeal activity. It’s an elaborate undertaking.

But that’s neither here nor there.

I think Naomi Stanford’s analogy is truly the best way to understand the difference between organizational design and development:

“Organization design is deciding first what is the purpose of the car that you are about to design, e.g. is it to cross the desert? Is it to win a Formula 1 race? Is it to transport two adults and three children to a party? Then designing and delivering a car that is fit for that purpose.

Organization development is about keeping that vehicle in the condition necessary to achieve the purpose, e.g. using the right fuel, having it regularly serviced, teaching the driver how to drive it to maximize its performance, and so on.”

Here’s another analogy from here post that I liked:

The underpinning ‘design’ of the human body is a given – skeleton, cardiovascular system, etc. But keeping the human body fit and healthy is the development aspect: nutrition, exercise, learning, managing stress, and so on.

I hope you found this helpful. As organizational consultants, we believe that the onus is on us to help people understand the difference between all the different processes out there before we are expected to deliver on an outcome. For example, most prospects would reach out to me for leadership coaching (an Organizational Development intervention) when their department goes through a massive overhaul (a Change Management, followed by Organizational Design intervention).

There’s only so much a coach can do to help when the leader’s perpetually distracted by the changes happening around them. My advice to these folks is almost always the same, “let’s talk about what’s happening around you and start from there.” And almost always, I have to start helping them with the change management process, followed by an organizational design intervention before settling for that one thing they reached out to me first, leadership coaching.

What’s the bottom line here? Strive to understand the organizational climate before self-prescribing a diagnosis. If you’re having trouble reading the temperate, bring an expert in. Unfortunately, that’s where most trainers and coaches fail — they don’t have a freaking clue what’s happening.

Enough of my rant. If this post resonates with you, share it further. And if you’re curious to know more about my work, feel free to reach out.

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