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Opinion: Design your organization to scale up

Industry Insight

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When we start our cars in the morning, a variety of systems spring into action to keep the engine running, blast cool air and tune into the best stations. When we walk into a well-designed building, we notice it’s functional and safe but also that we feel happy and in awe of the appearance.

Each of these simple luxuries that are oftentimes overlooked come from multiple engineers and architects spending countless hours on deliberate and complex processes.

Knowing our best machines and buildings require time, intention and detail to run efficiently and effectively, what if we put that same intention and detail into our organizational design?

If we really think about it, any entity or company is a form of a machine. It has multiple parts working together to perform many complex functions, and those parts work according to its design. The problem we routinely find is that organizations are often built without much thought behind the design, and strangely enough, this is especially common with professional firms, such as engineering and architecture companies.

Many firms start with a small group of engineers or architects. They work together effectively because the organization has a few simple parts, and these parts do almost everything. With fewer hoops and people to go through, it also is easier to communicate and stay on top of things. The company sees success, a reputation builds and more work comes in, requiring the company to scale. Companies immediately start hiring people to keep up with demand.

The answer to the problem is to deliberately design our companies to scale. Good design starts with a simple question: What do we want our ideal organization to do?

This is a great first step for any organization struggling with scaling. Then, when our companies are a little bigger, we can ask ourselves: How can we manage the weight of the growing organization and even capitalize on the increased knowledge and experience?

Another step in considering how to design our organizations is to forget about the people currently on staff. If we are expanding our company, looking at what to do with our current organization is a little like trying to redesign a new automobile by starting with last year’s model.

Just as architects and engineers should follow good standards and consider the laws of physics in their designs, there are certain rules that make for good organizational design. Here are a few tips to ensure success.
Roles vs. jobs
It is easy to write job descriptions by listing all of things that a person does during a day. But this isn’t very useful.

It is much more useful to start with a question: What function does each role play? From this question, we can start by creating simple role descriptions.

Then, because most people have multiple roles, we can create job descriptions that consist of one or more of those role descriptions. Every role has its own role description and every person has a job description.

If we find ourselves creating a job description with a dozen different roles, we may want to consider a different design.
Clear lines of authority
When designing a company and building an organizational chart, it is tempting to develop a complicated organizational hierarchy. The idea of a “flat organization” with almost no management is attractive and so is a matrix hierarchy where responsibility is spread throughout the company. However, as any experienced engineer or architect will say, the best design is often the simplest design.

The best design has each person reporting to one manager and each manager having no more than eight direct reports. Keep in mind, this structure doesn’t mean that an individual doesn’t have autonomy within their own role. For example, a licensed engineer is certainly responsible for their own design work and should be able to make design decisions as needed. However, that same engineer needs a manager who is focused on their development and accountability.
Visionary design
Good design should focus on how we want the organization to work, not just on how it currently works. This requires a vision and a good understanding of the value we give to our customers, who are ultimately the “users” of our organizational machines.

It is a good idea to have one eye on the customer when designing a company. Ask: How can we make our customer’s experience even better?

Engineers and architects are experts, but when it comes to our organizational machine, it is oftentimes forgotten. An organizational machine runs exactly the way it is designed to run, so if we want to get more from an organization, we need to design it to do more.

Don Harkey is the owner and CEO at People Centric Consulting Group in Springfield. He can be reached at


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