Aligning your brand through organization design.

How to action, evaluate, and optimize a brand strategy

Portrait of Kevin Brown, Co-founder & CEO of Mighty Ally

KEVIN BROWN

Big dreams fill the social sector. But how do you action, evaluate, and optimize a vision?

For an inspiring example, look no further than the 2009 biographical drama Invictus. It’s a true story about the South African Springboks’ improbable Rugby World Cup chase during post-apartheid unrest.

The film showcases the brilliance of Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) as he orchestrates the power of good leadership, the right team, and proper structure. And in the process, uses the sport to bridge racial and economic divides.

In real life, Mandela’s leadership itself moved mountains. But like most bold endeavors, Mandela knew he couldn’t go it alone. So he partnered with Springboks’ captain François Pienaar (Matt Damon) who began to assemble the right player mix around him – with good leaders and the right players in place, the squad focused on performance via rigid priorities, game-by-game reconfiguration and communication, and meticulous analysis.

These same three principles of leadership, people, and structure are paramount for growth-stage nonprofits and social enterprises too.

We’ll unpack this topic much more below. But first, a spoiler alert: Mandela and South Africa won the 1995 Rugby World Cup. And Matt Damon gets the girl.

A note before we begin

We think about brand through our proprietary Four A’s framework. If you haven’t already, get started with our The anatomy of a social sector brand post.

Transparent model of a skull with brain and nerves on display in a hospital.

But is org design, brand?

We take a more holistic view of brand strategy than most. So we sometimes get the question, “Wait, is organization design really part of brand?”

No doubt. Because organization design is how you action, evaluate, and optimize your brand. Org design puts a new, more systems-thinking lens on the legacy term ‘brand management.’

First, organization design gives you a way to turn brand strategy into action. Defining ‘the work’ within your theory of change is only the start. You also have to do the work. Your ambition must become action, else you face reputational risks. One prominent funder told us the most common reason they don’t invest is they don’t believe the organization can pull off their claims. Why go through the brand strategy process to tell the world about your bold future, without taking calculated steps to make sure you achieve it?

Second, organization design provides mechanisms to evaluate your brand. So, you’ve taken steps to activate your brand strategy. But how do you know if it’s on track? You can’t measure a brand with typical metrics or M&E, so you need some internal method of evaluating whether your brand is successful or not. Org design puts a spotlight on what (and who) is working and not within the strategy. Without this discipline of alignment, you might launch a brand into the world… but did it drive sales, donations, and impact?

And third, organization design ensures you optimize your brand over time. Congrats! Your brand strategy is underway and on track. But it’s not a set-it-and-forget-it event. Brand strategy is a constant sharpening process. It requires ongoing attention – driven by market conditions and staying close to your customers, beneficiaries, and funders. But you need a system for learning, documentation, and continuous improvement. That’s what org design does best: gives you a toolkit to optimize your brand strategy for years to come.

Organization design, defined.

Organization design is the art and science of aligning leadership, people, and structures with your theory of change and positioning strategy – to drive outcomes like confidence, efficiency, and resiliency.

It’s a set of principles, activities, and tools used to reach organizational health. In other words, you can’t do organizational health. But you can attain and maintain it through proper org design.

But before getting to our model, we think it’s valuable to highlight what others say about the subject. Because we’re certainly not beating this drum alone. From design thinkers to management consultants to best-selling authors, there’s no shortage of wisdom on the topic.

IDEO pioneered the concept of human-centered design to solve for both customers and organizations. They use org design to make companies more adaptive, creative, and prolific.

“When people ask me about what I do for a living, I say that I help people and teams do their best work. As an org designer, my job is to use the tools of design to enhance organizational culture, boost collaboration and teamwork, improve structures and processes, enable learning and development, and create a sense of purpose and belonging.”

MOLLIE WEST DUFFY, IDEO

McKinsey & Company has an entire global practice that designs organizations to reduce costs, drive growth, and strengthen short-term performance and long-term organizational health.

“Healthy organizations perform better. When companies manage with an equal eye to performance and health, they more than double the probability of outperforming their competitors. We’re more convinced than ever that organizational health is one of the most powerful assets a company can build.”

MCKINSEY & COMPANY

Private-sector consulting firm Nobl believes org design is the next frontier of design thinking. They report that – according to Deloitte – it’s an important concern for 90% of senior leaders.

“In rapidly scaling startups, many of us feel lost and overwhelmed. We know that what got us here won’t be what gets us to the next horizon, but we’re unsure what steps to take. Without organizational design, we measure the wrong things and then the wrong things become our priorities. We amass bureaucracies. We create busy-work. We lose our best people, and suppress the collective potential of the people who remain. Our products become more of a reflection of our org chart than our user’s needs. We lose the cultures we worked so hard to cultivate, and eventually we lose outright to our competitors.”

NOBL ACADEMY

And finally, Patrick Lencioni is a best-selling author who believes performance stems from building a cohesive leadership team, establishing clarity, and putting in place enough structure to reinforce that clarity.

“The single greatest advantage any company can achieve is organizational health. Yet it is ignored by most leaders even though it is simple, free, and available to anyone who wants it. Not finance. Not strategy. Not technology. It is teamwork that remains the ultimate competitive advantage, both because it is so powerful and so rare. If you could get all the people in an organization rowing in the same direction, you could dominate any industry, in any market, against any competition, at any time.”

PATRICK LENCIONI

Organization design might seem like the latest trend. Like a new discipline boosted by the popularity of human-centered design. But Harvard Business Review asked back in 1981 if org design was “fashion or fit.”

So it seems high time social ventures take notice.

Org design in the social sector.

Despite the power of org design in the private sector, the term doesn’t often find its way into the lexicon – much less the priorities – for most social ventures.

Organization design is free, effective, and available to all. So why all the attention on innovation, scale, and funding?

Without org design, innovation dies on the vine. Even good products and programs have no ability to scale. Great plans will never see the light of day. And social ventures end up in a perpetual funding chase, often wasting the money they do receive from foundations, donors, and customers.

By contrast, healthy nonprofits and social enterprises capitalize on innovation through diligent execution. They have the structure in place to take their brand, products, and services into new markets. And they attract more funding from diverse sources, allowing leaders to focus on innovation and constituents.

We conducted a qualitative and quantitative analysis of social ventures between $1MM to $5MM in annual turnover. And we found a pattern in org design (or lack thereof). When analyzing organizations across the three dimensions of leadership, people, and structure… four classes of companies clearly emerge. Those that are high risk, those that are low potential, those that are high potential, and those that are healthy.

In short, our experience shows that only one out of 10 social ventures has used org design to achieve health. That’s not good enough, considering the world’s most significant social problems require us all to be at our best. But there’s good news. Six out of 10 social ventures are stable, capable, and have high potential if they focus on org design and performance.

 

A real-world example.

We had an early client in South America with a compelling business idea involving both ag and tech (innovation: check). The business had grown to hundreds of customers in a short time, and their global market potential was unlimited (scale: check). They had raised a few hundred thousand dollars from some of the most prestigious investors in the world (funding: check). And the founders were smart as a whip and worked tirelessly (leadership, the foundation of the org design equation: check).

But it wasn’t enough.

We found quickly that they lacked two of the three critical org design components: the right people in the right seats, and structure. Without those two pieces of the puzzle, they had consistent staff issues. Staff issues led to product and service problems, which led to a disconnect from customers. The founders were open to change and implementing the right priorities, rhythms, and data in a last-ditch effort we recommended. But it was too little too late.

How many great brands with great potential, great funding, and even great leaders crumble every day in the social sector? The nonprofit and social enterprise graveyard is sadly littered with examples of organizations who ‘had it all’… except for health.

Where does your organization fall in this spectrum? And what do you do if you’re not yet the picture of health? Read on…

Mighty Ally org design model.

We wanted to develop a model of organization design for the social sector. So we’ve taken inspiration from renowned thought leaders, like those mentioned above. While insightful all around, no model was comprehensive enough. Nor perfectly applicable to the unique challenges faced in the social sector. And none were built for brand management, despite us knowing that’s critical.

So we pieced together learnings from serving hundreds of clients across industries and business sizes. And for growth-stage social ventures in particular, here’s what it takes to design a resilient organization:

Roughly ⅓ good leadership, ⅓ the right people, and ⅓ strong structure.

Let’s examine more.

LEADERSHIP

A company’s design and health start with its leaders. Not just because they come first on the timeline, typically. Or because they’re often the face of the brand. But because good or bad management can make or break an org faster and further than any other component.

Good leadership starts by being healthy within the leadership team. Then it implies being good managers for those on staff. Just because a leadership team gets along with each other doesn’t mean they’re good captains for those they’re leading.

In our experience, good or bad leadership alone will outweigh any other org design measure. Like a proper structure, detailed below. This is why you rarely see a successful social venture driving meaningful impact without a strong leader (or more) at the top. It’s why venture capitalists say they’d rather invest in an A-team with a B-idea than a B-team with an A-idea. Because without the right management in place, a company simply cannot be healthy. Period.

PEOPLE

Even good leaders need a team to drive real impact. And the truth is: leadership and people are directly correlated. Bad leadership always ends up with the wrong people, but good leadership has the ability to recruit and retain the right people.

The foremost rule around team building is getting the right people in the right seats. This simply means: finding those who fit your unique core values (right people) + ensuring they are filling the roles they understand, want, and have the capacity for (right seats).

In most organizations, the leader(s) are the most prominent brand ambassador(s). But the dozens or hundreds of employees have far greater reach and brand implications on your constituents. Staff answer customer support calls. Teams visit beneficiaries out in the field. And your people hold meetings with government officials. This collective of champions has more power to build your brand than any marcom effort. So invest – time and money – wisely into this critical element of org design.

The people equation of org design includes your board of advisors and directors. They too should be hired, fired, and managed by looking at alignment with both core values and their individual skill sets.

“In a time of economic turbulence, disruptive technology, globalization, and unprecedentedly fierce competition, the priority concern for many business leaders is to adapt to the changing conditions in order to boost their company’s performance. For that purpose, they frequently turn to organization design for help. By driving a thorough organizational review and redesign, company leaders can change the trajectory of their business.”

BOSTON CONSULTING GROUP

PRIORITIES

Beyond leadership and people, there’s a great deal of structure that accounts for the final 1/3 lunge towards peak performance. The first element of that structure is to take your grand vision and develop a 3-year picture. What will the organization look/be like three years from now? Use that picture as a start to get shit done.

Momentum and progress are the greatest human motivators; even more so than success. So part and parcel of a healthy organization is the ability to set and accomplish goals. Establish, document, share, and complete yearly, quarterly, weekly, and daily priorities.

As robotic as this all may sound, think about the clarity these priorities bring to a brand and its people. Plus, the reassurance in knowing everyone is working on the correct things to reach the shared vision.

“Individuals or organizations with too many priorities have no priorities and risk spinning their wheels and accomplishing nothing of significance. In turn, laser-focusing everyone — today, this week, this quarter, this year, and the next decade — creates clarity and power throughout the organization.”

VERNE HARNISH

RHYTHMS

Establishing priorities is important, but it’s not enough to be aligned on what to do. A healthy organization must still set a pattern for how to get the work done. Rhythms are the methods in which the organization facilitates internal communications, holds meetings, resolves issues, and establishes processes.

This area can border on micromanagement if not done well and not systematized across a company. So it’s important not to let individual leaders try and dictate individual rhythms for their departments or staff. That is, unless you’re dealing with a large organization spread across a number of countries.

This is a topic in and of itself and there’s a ton of reading out there. We like The E-Myth: Why Most Businesses Don’t Work and What to Do About It. The book preaches that the franchise approach ensures you build a business based on systems.

“Organize around business functions, not people. Build systems within each business function. Let systems run the business and people run the systems. People come and go but the systems remain constant.”

MICHAEL GERBER

DATA

The final piece of the org design puzzle forces social ventures to prove everything above on paper via key performance indicators (KPIs).

We like to say you can’t manage what you can’t measure. What gets measured gets done. And what doesn’t get done identifies bigger problems elsewhere in the organization. As in, rigorous measurement often shines a light on underperforming staff. And getting rid of that dead weight circles back around to the second important pillar of org design (people).

To design a healthy data-driven operation, a weekly scorecard is a must. Because dashboards are typically made up of lagging indicators. These are important success metrics that have already happened and are too late to affect. Scorecards, on the other hand, are made up mostly of leading indicators. Leading indicators allow you to see which activity metrics are on/off track, so you can better predict and correct for downstream results.

Everybody in the organization should have a measurable assigned to their performance. There’s a belief that if you ask someone how their week went, they should be able to answer you numerically. And all these metrics should be tied directly back to your impact model.

That’s organization design in a pyramid nutshell. You may have noticed culture isn’t specifically a building block of org design. It’s important, for sure. Because there’s a belief that your culture becomes your brand.

But it’s not something you can create or do. Despite culture being a hot topic, you can’t manufacture it with a ping pong table, a beer keg, and a fancy office with designer decor. Culture is a natural byproduct of the first three elements on the org design pyramid. It stems from good leadership, the right people being in the right seats, and clear swim lanes.

When the right people work for good leaders, feel in their bones why they’re coming to work every day, then know how to act and exactly what the company does to make the world a better place… that’s when culture (and a great brand) emerges.

A parting note.

Don’t be daunted. Organization design might seem like a complicated subject on the surface. But when you figure it out once, it not only grows in importance but also sticks with you forever.

To use an analogy, I liken org design to when I learned how to swim for long-distance triathlons. Swimming 2.4 miles in the Pacific ocean with 2,000 people kicking your face is scary for most of us at first. Getting to race day was part art, part science, and part hard work. But now that I’ve truly learned to swim the right way – flat, long, and on your side, if you’re curious – I could never go back to the doggy paddling I used to rely on. And I regret wasting years doing it the hard way, now knowing there was a path of least resistance available.

Start small. Take the next logical step. Whether that’s ordering a book, completing an online assessment, or giving us a call. I can guarantee from personal experience running companies and guiding hundreds of clients over the years. There’s a better, healthier way to design and manage your brand, achieve your vision, and create meaningful impact for those you serve.

Additional resources.

With the concept of organization design firmly in place, here are some tools and resources for those looking to dig in further. While org design is a service that firms like ours provide, there’s a great deal any company can do on its own too. Start here.

Online tools

Organization design: a toolkit of toolkits – a useful roundup of 10 free and downloadable resources from organization design practitioner, teacher, and author Naomi Stanford.

Organizational Health Checkup – for a quicker assessment than a full-fledged OCAT, take an online checkup from EOS to see where your company falls on a scale of 1-100. But don’t let a short quiz be your only investment of time.

DISC Profile – a behavior assessment tool that provides a common language people can use to better understand themselves and adapt their behaviors with others. And a good way to find out how you and your fellow leaders ‘fit’ together.

Books

Guide to Organisation Design: Creating high-performing and adaptable enterprisesNaomi Stanford

Organizational Design: A Step-By-Step ApproachRichard M. Burton

The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else In BusinessPatrick Lencioni

The Modern Firm: Organizational Design for Performance and GrowthJohn Roberts

Designing Your Organization: Using the STAR Model to Solve 5 Critical Design ChallengesAmy Kates & Jay Galbraith

Beyond Performance: How Great Organizations Build Ultimate Competitive AdvantageScott Keller & Colin Price

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