Organizational Design: Clearing the Runway for Collaboration and Breakthrough Thinking

Most industries in today’s world run on a balance of sophisticated computer systems and skilled people to use them. Technology has allowed numerous industries to grow at a rapid pace and has streamlined countless business processes. But it still can’t learn, design, and discover the way people can. 

When computers and machinery became more practical for industry starting in the 1960s, “lights out” management practices started to creep into business and factories. This involved replacing people with machines to do the same work, but such systems are inflexible and not able to adapt to new challenges unless a person steps in to make changes (Ake et al, 2004; p. 27). Henry Ford, one of the most well-known American innovators, said “You can take my factories, burn up my buildings, but give me my people and I’ll build the business right back again.” (Ake et al, 2004; p. 266)

Technology has its role in every workplace, but the lights are back on for the people in the room. We remain the best machines for identifying and adapting to change, learning from anything and everything, and developing the next best way to serve our consumers and communities. For these reasons, it’s crucial for leaders to design organizations with their people in mind. 

Organizational Design: Clearing the Runway for Collaboration and Breakthrough Thinking 

In our last post, we got to know your organization’s product portfolio from the perspective of those closest to the work. We also asked teams and team members to determine their own ways of measuring success, and used that to measure the success of the organization as a whole. Next, we’ll build on those ideas and show you how we’ve built our teams in higher education using methods from technology and healthcare industries. These organizational design principles facilitate sharing and communication across teams to allow both groups and individuals to grow. 

Designing Human-Centered Teams

When we are considering an organization of any size or discipline, it’s tempting to approach it with a strictly objective, result-oriented lens. This perspective allows us to look at the organization as a sort of super-organism, and clearly outline the essential processes and products that allow the organization to sustain itself and grow. Unfortunately, it doesn’t leave a lot of room to consider the people behind the work. International management and business consultant and author Hans Peter Bech put it best when he said, “It’s always people first … then the rest will follow.” (Bech, 2017)

To design a workplace that focuses on the people instead of exclusively the product, we can’t have silos of activity. To demonstrate this point, we’ll show some examples from a hypothetical technology company, in the context of three product lines. 

In the following image, we have outlined three product lines that each require the same three processes to be delivered effectively. One major selling point for users is consistency across platforms, allowing users to seamlessly transition from their phone to their tablet without having to learn a new interface. In addition, software between devices must be compatible to ensure that transition is functionally seamless.

Figure 1. Example of two different methods for building teams. In the vertical blue columns: building teams based on the product line, with each team addressing multiple necessary functions/skills. In horizontal green rows: building teams based on functions/skills, with each team addressing multiple products that are affected by these functions/skills.

Building teams around product lines creates redundancy: this company doesn’t need three separate software development teams or three separate groups working with suppliers and manufacturers. When organizations are structured this way, they lose the benefits of economies of scale and spend time, money, and energy in unnecessary places. This can also inadvertently create competing products or services within the same company.

Instead, designing teams based on function helps ensure consistency between products, eliminates redundancy, and brings a humanistic aspect to the workplace. The software developers pursued their training and education so they could make software for people, not just phones. The product is not their professional identity, and it never should be. Function-based teams give the power back to the team members and allow them to develop a skills-based identity within the organization, instead of becoming linked to a product that could become obsolete overnight. 

This kind of organizational design empowers employees by focusing on their passions, goals, and skill sets instead of “assigning” them to a product. In 2012, Google launched Project Aristotle to uncover what makes a perfect team. One of the contributing factors was “meaning”: team members find their work personally meaningful and impactful (How Google and Apple Build Exceptional Teams). Your employees have already decided what skills and disciplines they find meaningful; design your teams to empower your employees and allow them to make meaning in the work they do. Empowered teams empower organizations and help empower their business partners and communities, too. 

Make Room for Shared Governance

Shared governance is not a new idea in organizational management or design; people have been using and misusing the term for years. The misunderstanding doesn’t lie in the complexity of the process, because it’s really quite straightforward. Rather, people tend to confuse shared governance for participatory leadership. While both methods can be effective, shared governance is becoming more prevalent in large industries such as healthcare. Gen Guanci, a consultant at Creative Healthcare Management, describes it this way: “Shared governance is a structure and process for partnership, equity, accountability, and ownership. It puts the responsibility, authority, and accountability for practice-related decisions into the hands of the  individuals who [act].” (Guanci, 2018)

In participatory leadership, team members provide input into major decisions such as who to hire in a new position from a list of candidates. The team is given the opportunity to essentially “vote,” but the final power of decision-making lies with the leaders. 

A flowchart shows Teams A, B, and C providing feedback exclusively to Leadership. Leadership then provides feedback to Teams A, B, and C. Teams A, B, and C do not communicate with one another. Only Leadership is highlighted in green.

Figure 2. Transfer of information between teams in a participatory leadership model. Here, functional teams provide input to leadership teams. The leadership teams make decisions and then provide instruction to functional teams. Power of decision-making is highlighted in green. 

Participatory leadership is often called democratic leadership for this reason. Leaders define goals, solicit input from members of the organization, and ultimately make decisions that affect the organization as a whole. 

Shared governance means providing an infrastructure to refocus the power of decision-making back to those who have their hands on the work. Dr. Shelle Poole is the incoming Divisional Dean of the Boise State University School of Nursing and has made a career out of shared governance and working as a “servant leader.” When she needs information, she doesn’t just solicit input: she solicits decisions. “[If something needs improvement] I expect them to recommend things to me. I consider them to be the subject matter experts. They’re closest to the work, I don’t know it the way they do.” 

One of the tenants of shared governance is decentralized decision-making. Leaders clearly articulate the guidelines for the decision, whether that be a budget, timeline, or benchmark goal; and teams or staff make autonomous decisions within those guidelines. It’s important to remember that this is not the downsizing or elimination of hierarchical leadership. Leadership positions can continue to hold authority for regulatory guidelines, safety requirements, and other processes that rely on those in leadership positions. This is the sharing of the power of decision-making, the coupling of information across teams, and the responsibility that comes with it all. 

Flowchart showing two-way communication between Teams A, B, and C and Leadership. Teams communicate with one another, as well. All teams are highlighted in green.

Figure 3. Transfer of information between teams in a shared governance model. Here, leadership provides guidelines for decision-making to functional teams; these teams then provide input and ideas to leadership and to one another for a continuous two-way flow of information. Teams make their own decisions and take action based on the framework of shared information. Power of decision-making is highlighted in green. 

To further understand the difference between participatory leadership and shared governance, let’s look at two scenarios. In both scenarios, the state of Idaho is facing a projected nursing shortage, meaning the patient population is growing faster than the nursing workforce. The Boise State University School of Nursing is looking to increase enrollment in the undergraduate program to train more nurses. 

In scenario one, the administrative and leadership team meets with the advising, marketing, clinical, and didactic teams to ask for ideas on how to increase enrollment. Leaders collect all the input from each team and select the most valuable input and discard what is unrealistic or unnecessary. They then make a decision and inform the organization of their next move. 

In scenario two, the administrative and leadership team meets with the advising, marketing, clinical, and didactic teams to ask for ideas on how to increase enrollment. In these meetings, leadership lays out a clear timeline for action, budget limitations, community or business partner involvement, etc. and asks teams to propose action within these guidelines. Teams are encouraged to discuss their action plans with one another, perhaps in interdisciplinary meetings where teams share their ideas and goals. The administrative and leadership team may hold a large-scale meeting with everyone to reconcile any unclear or contradictory points between teams and moves forward with the proposed plan of action developed collaboratively by everyone involved. 

Shared governance may seem like it will take more time to make decisions, but that really depends on the organization and the task at hand. Shared governance has many advantages for organizations of all sizes: improved employee engagement, which leads to more active problem-solving; increased communication between teams, which helps break down professional and personal silos; and a better understanding of all parts of the organization for every team member, which improves everyone’s ability to understand and trust the way the organization functions. 

In the first article in this series, we discussed how to know what your organization does and how to manage it well. In this article, we outlined how to design human-centered, holistic teams, and give those teams the support and power they need to creatively solve problems and grow the organization. In our final post, we’ll talk about what more leaders can do to develop a culture of sharing, support, and innovation in their organizations. 

This article is written in collaboration with the Boise State University School of Nursing, and the incoming Divisional Dean Dr. Shelle Poole, Ph.D, PMP, MBB.


Ake, K., Clemons, J., Cubine, M. (2004). Information Technology for Manufacturing: Reducing Costs and Expanding Capabilities. St. Lucie Press. 

Bech, H. P.. (2017, July 5). It Is Always People First – Then The Rest Will Follow. TBK Consult.

Guanci, G. (2018, December 12). Shared Governance: What It Is and Is Not. Association for Nursing Professional Development.

How Google and Apple Build Exceptional Teams. Team Building Kits.


ABOUT US: We believe in either disrupting or being disrupted, and we chose to disrupt. At the Disruptor League, we want to know you, surprise you and make it easy for you to be a disruptor, too. It’s not all talk; we are changing the world. Join us to see how. We will teach you to use your superpowers and unite with us to change the world. The Disruptor League offers a unique environment to develop, to practice, and to embed design and innovation into your life. You will connect with others who want to make a difference. Relationships will grow, and problems will be solved.


Angela Fairbanks angelafairbanks




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