Where do we start with work design? Part 2

dreamstime_xs_17053142 (1).jpg

Work design is a daily activity. In running any business, everyone who is putting effort into that business will be contributing to the overall design of the work. There will always be a minimum of two dimensions, a who - the person doing the work and / or asking for the work, and a why, the purpose of the work. Part 1 of this post was about becoming more aware of the current work design, part 2 looks at those two main dimensions, who and why.

Work design is top down AND bottom up

There are basically two types of work design activity happening in a workplace on a day-to-day basis, one coming from what the boss wants or needs and the second from what the workers want or need. The real result ends up being a blend of both. You could think of the usual arrangement as boss-led design being design by intent (top down) and worker led design being design by default (bottom up).

In part one, we looked at three questions to get to work design based on a snapshot of now, comparing this to the ideal, and considering the process to get to this ideal.

This is a very linear process; what happens in reality is far more organic, the blend I just mentioned. The focus of the business owner may well be design by intent, putting all the ingredients of work into some deliberate pattern. In the meantime, people will do what they need to do or what they choose to do based on their own motivations.

Typically, they’ll deliver this end result with the skills, experience and knowledge they have for that specific situation if no other ‘design’ is put in place.

Why and who dominate any work design

So if people and purpose are the trump cards for any work design, the practical challenge is to tailor any specific work design (assuming a business of more than one person) to meet the requirements of the situation. This will be the requirements of at least two people, and more likely than not, at least two purposes. There are then no fewer than two lots of “why” and two lots of ‘who’. It doesn’t take any skill with maths to see that even at this level the work design can be lopsided or mismatched to the point where it has a major fault. Often this is a critical fault. At other times, everyone just muddles through. This is not necessarily particularly efficient nor particularly effective.

Ask whether who or why wins

My view is that for work design to ‘work’, the work design process should deliberately start with a who or a why focus. A who-centric work design focusses on the person. In the case of a manager, notionally the manager represents the purpose of the organisation or business (more on that in a later post). The worker represents themselves. A why-centric work design focusses on the purpose. The people, and potentially even the business interests, come second. A balanced design would be a win-win situation for both people and the purposes they individually and collectively value. This is not a small thing to ask for.

Ask how much depth and breadth are needed

At a who / why level, clearly the more factors you look at, the more complex the work design gets. A simple task design with one person can be modelled relatively easily. Once the activity has more aspects to it - more people, more purposes - the exercise becomes a whole lot more difficult. A skilled business leader or motivated worker will put the ‘bundle’ together in its simplest, most elegant form. The rest of us struggle a bit.

What you can do

The simplest way to learn the art of work design is to observe work as it is done and ask the following questions:

  • What was the purpose (think verb and noun) and how important was it?
  • Who was part of the activity (worker, employer) and how important were they?
  • What was the relative importance of the two?
  • How well did that work? In other words, what won out - people, purpose or both.

Don’t just take my word for it though! If you’d like to see how others have approached this challenge, have a look at Peter Drucker, Ken Blanchard and Sharon Parker’s contributions to these ideas. The next post will look context and situation as the setting for a work design, the final post on four other dimensions of work design and how they can configured to create the overall structure.