Dean Meyer’s “How Organizations Should Work” – an A+ Reference on Intentional Organizational Design
The organization that you design designs you back.
Similarly, the organization that you fail to intentionally design will also design you back. And you probably won’t like the pain it inflicts… whether that pain manifests as political battles, conflicts of interests, or just plain stonewalling or slow-walking. People tend to perform based on how well their goals and objectives are defined, how effectively their roles (and the relationships between their roles and other roles) are defined, and how rigorously the organization monitors and reinforces desired behaviors and outcomes.
Unfortunately, it’s rare to get all those pieces in place and functioning at the same time. But thanks to Dean Meyer’s new 2022 book, How Organizations Should Work, you’ll have a head start on lessons learned. Based on his multi-decade career in organizational design, he provides simple, tangible, and meaningful explanations that will help you learn how to intentionally design your organization.
I brought this book to Burning Man because I wanted to read it in a place where I could take my time, where I could allow my mind to expand and take in Dean’s lessons, where I could feel the inspiration all around me while figuring out how to bake more inspired organizational design into my own workplace. And I did start reading it there.
But this book is so packed with wisdom and insights that you’ll want to read it slowly. Plan adequate time for it. After getting through the first 80 pages or so at the event, I read one or two sections every weekend. It took me a full three months to get through cover to cover… and I’m someone who can read a whole book in one sitting. This one, though, will make you think, and you’ll need time to pause and reflect on each of the stories and narratives that Dean uses to make his points.
Here’s a small sample of the highlights (and there are more; you can find this book on Amazon for $37-40).
Book Summary (p. 465-494). The best way to develop a reading plan for this book is to start at the end. Dean provides a helpful synopsis of each chapter that you can use to figure out which sections are most relevant for your organization now. The book is structured so that you don’t have to read it from start to finish, but can pick the sections that are the highest priority for continuous improvement in your organization. Some sections (like Chapter 19, on managing workers in the field) may be less relevant to your needs than other sections (like Chapter 15, on aligning sales and marketing). I recommend starting with Chapters 1 through 6 (and if your time is limited, start with Chapters 5 & 6).
Chapter 5 – Market Organization & Chapter 6 – Empowerment (p. 33-57). These two chapters provide the best (and most concentrated) view of the main thesis of the book, which is that every organization should be structured as a market. Each functional area should have customers, and services they provide to those customers. Each functional area should be empowered to make decisions about how the business of that unit is conducted, and should also have the skills to do it (and to build trust within their business unit and between their business unit and others). Organizing according to a market allows people to specialize, makes it possible to monitor performance in a more modular way, and simplifies the cognitive complexity of an organization.
Appendix 4 – Culture: Examples of Behavioral Principles (p. 376-380). Dean notes that companies are great at defining their culture, but often not so great at explaining how people can embody that culture and monitor their behaviors to ensure that they are living it and reinforcing it. In this section, he provides specific examples of behaviors that can make goals like “maintain a high ethical standard” actionable. For example, you can say “we do not permit personal conflicts of interest”. You’ll have to test your processes against these behavioral expressions of culture, too: if you don’t permit personal conflicts of interest, you should identify areas where conflicts of interest might arise and anticipate ways to identify them, prevent them, or resolve them quickly.
There are so many things I like about this book, and it embodies so many principles of good organizational design in a light, conversational way. Although there are a lot of books I really like, I don’t typically gush over them… but this one meets my high standards. Coupled with Dean’s 2017 book, Principle-Based Organizational Structure (which has a less conversational and more academic style), these are the only two references I really need to remind me of the essentials for intentionally building healthy organizations that are aligned internally and externally.
Alignment is the best way to reduce friction between people, and accelerate real progress towards tangible goals.