Tag Archives: Design Principles

Building a house and transforming a business have more in common than you might think…

A case for organisational design principles…

Regardless of whether you are designing a house, a commercial building, starting a new business or transforming an existing operation, the cause of many substandard designs and implementations can very often be traced back to a common failing.

The following is an analogy, but one I have witnessed first hand, both in a personal and in many business contexts.  It resonates because the impacts of poor design have long lasting effects on those involved and invested, both financially and personally… and I would be surprised if you too hadn’t witnessed similar scenarios.


The vision…
You and your partner decide to build a house.
Your vision for your house is that it be the home of your dreams… the last place you will build, a place where you can live comfortably for the rest of your lives, and a place where your family always feel welcome and safe.

To achieve your vision, you agree on a strategy to:

  • Find a block of land with city views with a rundown house on it,
  • Clear the block and build a new, energy efficient house,
  • Design the house yourselves and engage a draftsman to complete the technical drawings, (saving money to be redirected towards energy efficient features),
  • Use sustainable building products,
  • Be energy self-sufficient within 5 years.

Whilst you search for a suitable block, you commence your house design. You split up the various sections of the house between you and your partner, and design each space around your specialities and preferences…ie: you design the kitchen, your partner designs the bedrooms and so on…
You come together periodically to discuss the progress you are making and the major issues you are thinking through, room by room… and by the end of the design phase, you are both happy with the spaces you’ve designed and the functionality of each.

You find a suitable block, make the purchase and engage your draftsman to turn the design into a plan. The draftsman works as directed, and compiles the design into a working plan. You tweak your designs slightly as the draftsman points out obvious issues, but on the whole, each room and space retains its design elements and you are ready to get final building approvals and engage a builder.

Your builder starts construction.
The build progresses well, but as with all builds, there are inevitable, small issues encountered in a number of spaces by the builder. Some he resolves using his own experience, some he refers to you to decide on. Most of the resolutions are minor with small adjustments to dimensions, alignment with frames and trusses etc, but the plan for each of the affected spaces only require minor amendments.

The build is completed, and as you and your partner stand in your new home for the first time, you are both are ecstatic with the result.

A few weeks pass. You move in and start to inhabit and live in the space. A few things catch your eye.
Whilst standing in the kitchen, cooking, you glance to your left and find that you have a clear line of sight straight through the master bedroom door, through to the ensuite and the exposed toilet.
You look straight ahead and notice that the lighting in the living space is annoyingly off centre from the lighting alignment in both the kitchen and the outdoor extension of the living area.
You hear your children playing outside, but you have to move out of the kitchen/living area, where you spend the majority of your time, to be able to keep an eye on them.

In the upstairs bedroom, the laundry shoot in the wardrobe, that had to be moved just 50mm to avoid the underfloor structures, now drops the clothes further away from the laundry wall beneath, meaning the basket needs to be placed annoyingly out in the walkway that leads to the outside door of the laundry, to ensure the clothes aren’t dropped in the middle of the floor.

The solar panel system purchased does not generate enough power to run both the house and the pool, due to an upgrade deal you were able to negotiate on the size of the pool. And, under the house, the planned water tanks have had to be downsized, due to a budget decision made during the cut and fill stage of the build, meaning that the water storage capacity will not allow you to produce a self-sufficient water supply.

As you look closer, you continue to notice other issues over time. The deficiencies in the way the house performs become more frustrating, but over time you adjust to living with them, albeit that your satisfaction is greatly diminished, your dream has been tarnished and plan of self-sufficiency now seems unachievable without significant additional investment.

The point is…
The vision and strategy were sound. Each partner understood the strategy and vision, and each space was designed in accordance with that vision and strategy, however…

  • Each space was designed, planned and built to operate as a singular space.
  • Decisions relating to each space were taken in isolation and based on the design priorities of that space and its designer.
  • Discussions at the planning stage, between the designers of each space, regarding the achievement of the strategy and the vision, were high level, and whilst productive, did not draw out the inter-linkages between each space and the impacts of each design element.
  • As time wore on, these discussions became more and more about the detail of each individual space, and the tie-back to the original intent was discussed less and less.
  • There was no clear, definitive set of design principles on which to base and validate every design decision, amendment decision and budget decision.
  • As such, there was no way to validate that each element of the design and build was actually going to achieve the strategy and vision… There was a large “grey-space” between the strategy and vision, and the execution of the plan.

Execution of the plan was done with the best of intentions, but the result was a disconnected and sub-optimal result, with long lasting impacts on owner satisfaction and usability, inability to achieve the core objectives, inflexible design and ongoing costs exceeding budget.

Of course, the house being built is a metaphor for the development of a new business, an organisational transformation, or large program of work. Regardless of whether we are talking about house designs or execution of organisational strategy, people remain at the heart of all decisions, and as such, the implications of not setting up an environment where sound and confident decision making is possible, are likely to be long lasting and destructive.

Now, let’s revisit these issues in a business context… Do any of these sound familiar?…

  • Each division/department was designed, planned and built to operate as a singular operation.
  • Decisions relating to each division/department were taken in isolation and based on the design priorities of that division and its Manager/s.
  • Discussions at the planning stage, between the Managers of each division/department, regarding the achievement of the strategy and the vision, were high level, and whilst productive, did not draw out the inter-linkages between each division/department and the impacts of each department’s outputs.
  • As time wore on, these discussions became more and more about the detail of each individual division, and the tie-back to the original organisational intent was discussed less and less.
  • There was no clear, definitive set of design principles on which to base and validate every design decision, amendment decision and budget decision.
  • As such, there was no way to validate that the collective outputs of each division were actually going to achieve the strategy and vision… There was a large “grey-space” between the strategy and vision, and the execution of the business plan.

To avoid these issues…
Following the Vision and Strategy setting stage… but before the design and build phase, a set of overarching design principles and use cases are required to be developed, to turn the vision into a tangible set of actionable principles that could be used for all decision making, problem solving, prioritisation and planning.
The process of defining Design Principles commences by focussing thinking and energy towards the core “outcomes” desired, and ensuring that the important aspects of the vision and strategy are articulated in a way that can be related to and understood unambiguously.

Next stage is to refine and adapt each principle in more detail, exploring interconnections and more operational impacts and implications. This is achieved by asking detailed questions as to how the desired outcomes will be achieved, end to end…
Questions such as, “…What experience will the user have when operating in the kitchen…?”, “What are the mandatory aspects that should be hidden from view…?”, “What will the user see from each core work space…?”, “How will key usability features interact and operate throughout the entire lifecycle of each use case…?”, What are the limitations of the solar system, and how much future flexibility is built in to allow for expansion…?”.

In a business context, these principles will span seven core categories, describing how decisions and priorities are to be made regarding People/Customers, Products & Services, Channels of Access, Processes, Information & Data, Technology, and Capability. Questions driving the formulation of these principles might sound like, “…What experience will the customer have when accessing services that cut across multiple divisions or departments of the business…?”, “…How will captured data be reused throughout the lifecycle of the customer…?”, “…What are the core ‘outcomes’ that MUST be delivered for the business to achieve its vision…?”, and so on.

Once finalised, the answers are converted into principles. The result is a decision making and prioritisation validation reference that can be used to ensure that each element of the finished product, and every decision required to be made, every day, always contributes and remains linked to the achievement of the overarching vision and strategic intent.

Disagreements that arise, cease to become arguments of whether one person was right or wrong… but become far more rational discussions of the merits of the principle on which the decision was based. The resolution of these discussions then is either, a). the principle is still considered valid, and the decision stands, or b). the principle needs to be amended.

The sequencing is critical…
Building an effective operating model is an iterative process…

1. Organisational Vision and Strategies are validated,
2. Organisational Level Design Principles are defined and agreed (CEO and SLT level),
3. Divisional level principles are defined next, as extensions of the level above,
4. Manager/Department/Team level principles are then defined, as the next level of detail, utilising the principles from above,
5. Project/Process level principles can also be developed, ensuring alignment at the most operational levels of the business,
6. Design Principles are actively utilised and referenced for decision making and prioritisation across the business, and critically, referred to and reviewed in all ongoing decision making forums.

To achieve the optimal “outcomes” through organisational change when applying this methodology, it is imperative that implementation of the Operating Model follows the following sequence:
1). Design Principles first… 2). Optimal Process Designs or Changes required to deliver the principles come next… 3). The Structure and Capabilities required to achieve these come last.

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‘Negative splitting’ your project plans… critical lessons from the world of athletic performance.

The concept of ‘negative splitting’ is nothing new to those in the world of athletics and endurance sports. Put simply, it means you plan the effort and intensity of a training session or race such that the second half is executed faster and stronger than the first.

Any athlete will tell you countless stories of starting a race too fast, and either trudging slowly and painfully through the back half and falling across the finish line exhausted, or worse, failing to finish. Either way, the pain of unfulfilled potential outlives the physical discomfort, and for some, this can be demotivating and demoralising.

Sadly however, many of the same athletes racing on a Sunday, fail to apply these lessons learned on Monday in their business or project. Whether you are planning a small-scale project or a large transformation program, human performance remains the cornerstone of success, and therefore incorporating the following four key concepts can help you to build sustainable, progressive and winning program plans.

Clarity of purpose and goals

Like an athlete embarking on their preparation to run in a marathon, the formation of any large business project or transformation program naturally brings with it an increased level of excitement and enthusiasm. Often at this stage, the goals and intended outcomes exist only at a high level. Visions of the finish line are formulated and communicated, and the possibilities seem endless. It is at this stage that time must be spent clarifying, in detail, the program’s intent and the principles that will underpin the development and delivery. Without this clarity, the realities and overlay of timeframes, schedules and the need to start delivering ‘something’ leads to self-interpretation, divergent streams of activity, contradictory direction and unnecessary intensity. Each and every person involved must know exactly what the goals are, but more importantly, the phases of the program, the philosophy and design principles underpinning each phase, and the expected progression of intensity. Taking the time early to mentally prepare your people for the road ahead is critical in building the right expectations, reducing anxiety and ensuring that the program understands and can sustain the effort required, right to the end.

Training and conditioning.

Preparing to unleash a winning performance in endurance sport is a process of gradually building both physical and mental capacity and capability. Attempting to perform at ‘race pace’ too early leads to flatlined or reducing performance gains and physical and mental breakdown. Large business projects are no different. We’ve all seen projects that had the potential to deliver huge wins, start off at a sprint, but fail to maintain the early intensity. Sub-standard deliverables, missed milestones, unrealistic expectations, and stressed and burned out staff are the hallmarks of programs that fail to conserve energy for the back half. The program must identify the capabilities required early, so that staff have enough time to build the strengths and capabilities required to get the work done. Working out that key skills are missing during delivery phases is not good enough, and points to failures in defining purpose and intent.

Your staff also need to be conditioned for the pressures and expectations of the journey ahead. This phase is not about slowing to a walk, but about consciously putting in place an environment where the program collectively builds its capacity and capability to remain strong and stay healthy for an extended time.

“…Programs that are crystal clear on their intent, purpose and design principles, have been paced correctly, and have nurtured the health and mental wellbeing of their staff, can expect surges of energy and positivity at the times when they need it most…”

Physical and mental nutrition.

Whilst it seems obvious that a healthy body and mind are key to delivering high performance, sadly in both endurance sport and transformation programs, this principle is forgotten a surprisingly high proportion of the time. Worse still, is a lack of recognition or planning for the health of the participants throughout the program. Whether it is the deadlines set, the need to make profit, the expectation of stakeholders or simply poor planning, the health of the program staff is often neglected in the name of the success of the deliverables. High performance over extended periods requires food, rest, sleep, and validation. Staff irritability, lapses in judgement, reducing levels of collaboration and communication, flagging energy, impulsive decision making, introversion and irrational and emotional reactions are all indicators of a person struggling under the pressure. As program managers, you have a duty of care to identify these signs early, and better still, plan the program to reduce the risk of these symptoms occurring.

Personal development of program staff is yet another aspect of program life that too often falls by the wayside. Lured by the promise of career changing development opportunities, acquisition of market leading skills, unique experiences or exposure to new age thinking, your staff give a lot, and often give up a lot, to join a large project, with the expectation that those promises are fulfilled. The excuse that looming deadlines, tight schedules, or program changes and issues are the reason why staff fail to receive personal or professional development during programs is simply a cover for lack of adequate planning. And simply saying, “just being on this program is a development opportunity” is a cop-out. Your program is nothing without your people, and without growing your people, they will disengage, ensuring that this program, and those that come after it, will not reach their potential.

Building intensity and getting to the finish line to win.

Once the first three principles are embedded, the program plan can safely be structured with a natural and gradual increase in intensity, pace and pressure, backed by prepared, conditioned and engaged staff. The back half of a large project will always require increased intensity of effort. There will always be surprises, issues, challenges and last minute pushes to get it all across the line. This is where the planning of the first half of the program pays off. Programs that are crystal clear on their intent, purpose and design principles, have been paced correctly, and have nurtured the health and mental wellbeing of their staff, can expect surges of energy and positivity at the times when they need it most. In addition, you will retain motivated staff that will push toward the finish line relentlessly, making the finish line the euphoric experience it deserves to be, rather than the all too familiar feeling of: “so glad that’s over, I’ll never run a marathon again”.

Without operating model principles, your strategy and vision are just words on a page…

“To be the provider of choice for…” “To offer a superior service to our chosen markets…” “To be the market leader in…” The vision sounds fantastic. But what now? What does it really mean to the way your business operates, and how do your people align what they are doing every minute of every day to deliver on that vision?

There’s no question in our minds, vision statements are critical. They set the direction and tone for an organisation, focus attention, and make great mouse pads. But underneath that is an even more critical level of information – your operating model principles. When defined well, a clear operating model makes everyday decision making simple for every team member, provides unambiguous clarity of purpose, and gives every stakeholder a tangible understanding of exactly how the vision and strategy will come to life through every interaction and every process. Even with the clearest of visions, organisations that fail to define their operating model principles can experience misinterpretation of their strategy, inconsistent decision making, failed deliverables, confused customers and even more confused staff.

Whether you’ve defined your strategy and vision for your company, your system transformation program, or for the next five years of growth, to truly bring your people along with you and help them create a tangible identity with what they are employed to achieve, your staff also need a tangible, clear and unambiguous set of principles with which they can make predictable and consistent decisions, think and create safely, work autonomously, and act with confidence. A well defined operating model will enable all of that.

In return, you will receive greater empowerment and ownership from your people; the volume of everyday decisions required to be made by your managers and leaders will reduce; and your business will work more harmoniously and efficiently and with less conflict and friction.

“…Even with the clearest of visions, organisations that fail to define their operating model principles experience misinterpretation of their strategy, inconsistent decision making, failed deliverables, confused customers and even more confused staff…”


The operating models we develop address the following seven key principle categories. The examples below are of course, not exhaustive, but illustrate the type of thinking we use to bring your strategy and vision to life. Not only do these principles articulate what your business will be, but also, where applicable, what it will not be.

Customers and People – these principles describe exactly what customers and industry segments you want to do business with; how your customers will/should/must experience their journey or interaction with your business; how your staff will treat them; and what the customer can expect from you if things don’t go to plan. These principles also describe how it will feel for your staff to work within your organisation.

Products and Services – what are the products and/or services you will offer (and avoid offering); how should they be designed to behave; how should your customers experience them; how should they compliment each other; how will they compete with your competitors; how will you achieve growth; and how will you win?

Channels of delivery – how will your customers interact with you; what options will be available to them; how will you keep up with emerging trends and technology; and how will your multiple channels integrate with each other?

Processes – how will your people execute their functions; what will be their role in decision making; how much automation do you require/desire; how will you ensure efficiency; how should processes be designed; how should your staff and customers experience those processes; and what is your approach to continuous improvement?

Information and Data – what information do you need to deliver your strategy and vision; how will you store and use the information and data you have gathered; what role will it play in delivering superior products and services; and can your customer benefit from the information and insights you have collected?

Technology – what system capabilities do you need to meet your goals; what is your appetite for emerging technology; what is your tolerance for multiple systems and interfaces; how will your systems and platforms integrate together; how do you protect your customers and your business; and how will you maintain and upgrade your technology?

Capabilities & Culture – How does your business need to be structured to succeed; what are the management and leadership capabilities required; what are the key skills required by your people in order to deliver your strategy and vision; what capabilities do you expect your customers to possess in order for them to succeed with your products/services; what mix of human talent and diversity do you aspire to; how will your staff experience being employed; what is the culture you require/expect within the business?

These operating model principles then become the foundation that supports the design or transformation of the organisation, layer by layer, and shape decision making across your entire business. Your managers, leaders and team members can all validate their thinking and everyday decisioning against an unambiguous set of principles that all drive action that compliments your intended vision and your strategy. Furthermore, these same principles can be used and adapted to the design of a project or program of work, a specific value chain or even a single operational process, ensuring that at both the macro and micro levels of your business, there is an agreed, understood and integrated operating model defining the way you do business every day, and elevating the strategy and vision from your page to your reality.