Teams, Leadership, Org Design,

Org Design: Insights from Shubha Narayanan on AI, Collaboration, and the UNSPEND Model

Expert author: Shubha Narayanan

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Show notes:

The OrgSmith -

Jay Galbraith -

Festival of Org Design -


[00:00:00] Tim Brewer: Welcome to the Org Design Podcast. My name is Tim Brewer, one of the hosts. I also have Amy Springer joining me, and today we've got a very special guest joining us as we open the doors and talk all things org design and workforce transformation with experts in the industry.

Today we have Shuba joining us from Singapore. Welcome to the show. You're a partner at OrgSmith, I'm sure we'll get to talk a little bit more about in a moment. They're org design consultants who have been leading workforce transformation in government and private sector since 2002. So lots of experience in the industry. We got to meet at the Org Design Festival in the US in 2023, we're so glad that we finally get to have you on the podcast. Maybe share a little bit about how everything's going at OrgSmith.

[00:00:49] Shubha Narayanan: Hey Tim, so nice to meet you and so nice to meet you again. We met in Philly and it's almost a year, time flies. Yes, been busy with interesting work and that's what keeps us all going. And I think to me, The way AI and technology has come into all areas of work and even how making a difference in our work is making this piece of our job even more interesting, and Tim, you are in technology. You lead Functionly and that makes it, it's even more interesting to see how we can leverage technology better to absolutely drive workforce transformation and org design plays a very critical role in that, making that happen.

[00:01:37] Amy Springer: I'd love to understand how did you become an org designer? Was it an active choice that you pursued or you've naturally fallen?

[00:01:45] Shubha Narayanan: Very interesting question. Actually, I did not start off as an org designer. I used to work with KPMG and I was always in the organization effectiveness practice, but we did things like talent management, succession, competencies and all, and when I used work on these assignments, I always used to stumble issues related to org design, like the structure was not aligned with the strategy. Therefore, the roles did not make sense or the skill sets that they have mapped out did not match with the role. Or the client is trying to change to a customer centric culture, but the processes of sharing information or the processes of distributing authority and power between the regional office and the country, there was misalignment. And these things would actually speak to me or, I would hit on these problems and I would sit down with the client and say, we need to iron this out and we need to iron this out.

So it wasn't really a part of my mandate, but invariably these things appealed to me. I used to sit down with the client and, sort it out and the client always saw value in it. Then we made our own model and, of course there was Galbraith's model back in my head, and I just find all design so much more comprehensive, it touches all aspects, it looks at strategy, then you look at structure, then you look at position, you look at process, you could look at skills, rewards, and culture. That interconnectedness is what actually drives sustainable change. And that's what I find fascinating and, I've grown to enjoy this area of work and looking at specializing and learning further and further. The more you learn, the more you realize how little and the more you read and the more you get it and talking with other experts, like Tim and yourself, just makes the conversation and the world of org design so much richer.

[00:03:51] Amy Springer: You enjoyed it enough to start your own consulting company. When you talk about we, is that in the context of OrgSmith?

[00:03:57] Shubha Narayanan: Yes. I've been a consultant for donkey's years. I started off with KPMG, then I was with Towers, we set up HR Strategies, then we morphed into the OrgSmith. Yes. So I've been a consultant for a long time and I really enjoy making a difference to clients to solve real problems. Typically we get referred to say they probably have used some other consultants or some big names and say, Hey, didn't really solve the problem, let's go talk to Shubha, let's go talk HR strategies and let's see whether they can give us a new perspective or a fresh perspective.

[00:04:33] Tim Brewer: Think that's super interesting. I love the new name as well, the work the OrgSmith, I think it's really cool and talks to the work required to lead change in organizations. I would love to double back on the model that you use internally and share some of the highlights of that for people listening that as they think about challenges in their own organization, but we always try and ask the tough questions. When people are looking at their organization and thinking, I think I have an org design problem, and they're seeing these situations occur or symptoms of a poorly structured organization and feeling the need to lead some kind of effort in structural change, what does a atypical leader need to be watching out for in their organization, that's going to signal to them that they need to come and speak to you or come and speak to someone, or have a go at rethinking how they're structured? What do you see when you walk into that first meeting chatting with a leader? What are they saying is hurting the most?

[00:05:37] Shubha Narayanan: This is a very interesting question. Actually, in our new website, we've actually put down what are the typical questions clients ask us. But to answer your question, it could come in different shapes and forms. Some people come to us saying that, look, I need to grow, but I don't want to increase headcount. Actually, the problem statement the client came was, my sales team is bringing new business, but every time they bring in new business, operation team say, I need to increase three headcount to deliver this project or this service, this customer, and that doesn't make commercial sense. So they were, their org design was not scalable. That was the problem. So every time they needed to replicate the whole system, the delivery system to service the customer, that doesn't make sense. So that was one, one type of problem to say, I need to grow or I need to scale and I simply cannot increase manpower. Some people come to say that, look, I believe we can do more, I feel there is a pockets of underutilization and there is of absolutely people are stretched like a rubber band. There's something going wrong and this overwork syndrome of employee. We need to see how many people do we need? People come with that. Some people come and say that, look, I want to achieve this, but I, this is my strategy, but I don't know whether my organization is adaptive enough is is agile enough to to cope with Fast changing environment, but this is our strategy, this is where we want to go. So there are different entry points to the to the whole org design spectrum. That's the beauty of org design because it touches from strategy, we come to structure. That's one part, we come to position and process, then we come to expertise and skill sets, then we come to rewards, and then we come to culture. So the whole thing is beautifully strung like a string of pearls, and each one little thing makes a change to that entire change transformation.

[00:07:52] Amy Springer: Shuba, you've already hinted at the steps in your org design process. Is there a unique way that you address these challenges for your clients at OrgSmith?

[00:08:02] Shubha Narayanan: Yes, Amy, we do, we have based on Galbraith's work, we have developed our model, but I think the first kudos is to Galbraith to think so beautifully the systems way of have thinking, I'm a big fan of systems thinking. Okay. So probably has come out by now. But the fact that it is an interconnected, the organization is a product of interconnected variables. It is not a sum, but it's a product. So we look at it as our model is UNSPEND. It starts with understand strategy, then you look at what is the structure that will fulfill this strategy? what is the business model and does it support the strategy and things like that? Then you look at, so when we look at structure, we look at which parts of the organization needs to be agile, responsive, which parts of the organization needs to be focusing on efficiency and scale and things like that. So then we look at structure. Then we look at position and process. We look at the process, how business gets executed, workflow, and we look at the various jobs, the key jobs in this value chain. And when we look at the jobs, we look at every job holder, every job holder is doing value added work, and we're not spending time on low value added work, and this is where we look at leveraging AI. We look at leveraging things like Functionly and all sorts of technology to ensure people are focused on value added work. Now that you've looked at the structure, you've looked at position, and you've looked at process, and you minimize the low value added work and the low value added processes. Then you look at what are the numbers, how many people do we actually need? We actually quantify the workload look at where is the surplus capacity? Where is there less capacity? And then we pulled this whole thing together to say, okay, this is the new structure, this is the new processes, workflows, this is how jobs will be designed, this is the new competencies required, the expertise, and then we say, okay, exactly how many people do we need and how do we drive the change?

So that's UNSPEND for you.

[00:10:24] Tim Brewer: That's really interesting. I know I said that this in a pre conversation, but I think that needs to be written about more. I think it's a really interesting model. My encouragement is that for everyday leaders, very simple frameworks like that, I think help them think through how to lead a healthy org design culture, which is what I'll spring into next. I know you get to see. Inside a lot of organizations and speak to a lot of leaders as a part of your work. We've had a couple of the different people talk about org design culture and what makes it a healthy org design culture. Not just doing big monolithic projects with the super consultants to get the most expensive PowerPoint deck you'll ever pay for, but it's more actually leading that structured change as you talk about.

What are the things that you encourage organizations to do so that when you finish the project, they end up with a healthier org design culture than when they started working with the org Smith?

[00:11:19] Shubha Narayanan: This is a very interesting thing. Going forward, what we are going to see is less of vertical organizations and more of the horizontal organizations. Because what we're really going to see is the holistic way of, understanding how these interactions come together, so the horizontal organization to make that work, where all people talk of sprint teams, cross functional teams, breaking down silos, whatever it is, we call it whatever name it is but it's basically getting the horizontal organizations where people talk to each other. So the culture is going to be less about getting everything dotting every I and crossing every T. The culture is less going to be about that, but actually coming together and making sense of what is happening. So, the role of leaders, and the role of leaders going forward is not going to be so much about giving direction, but making when people come together, it's going to be more about sense making, bringing about more clarity, coming together, a driving collaboration. It's about getting people to understand each other's perspective and how I can create synergy together to say, if you can do this and I can do this and then together we can approach this problem like this rather than do it in the past, we were doing it this way, so it's actually taking more and more power away from the center, away from that centralized system and moving it more, giving it more to the markets, to the countries, to making global brands relevant to the local markets. So there is still a brand ethos, but how do I adapt it and make sense of it to the local market?

So imagine if the regional office could work with the country offices to say, look, this is how I can support you, you understand your customers better, let's work together and give it a synergistic solution rather than me say that's the way we always do it, and this is the way we will launch a global brand. So, I think it's going to become a bigger culture of collaboration, understanding the interdependencies, understand the subtle nuances, and working together to make sense of it all.

[00:13:54] Tim Brewer: An extension from that, you mentioned at the beginning of the call, like the obvious inclusion of AI and it's just the speed of its progression both as a technology, but its impact on how organizations are thinking, planning, and org designing. Do you think that's going to impact or accelerate the need for change in org design culture? And what are you seeing so far as the impact of AI today in the work you've been doing?

[00:14:20] Shubha Narayanan: Big changes because the way we deliver work, is changing because AI is going to do so much of the routine work and AI is also going to help speed up a lot of the judgment work. example, I was writing an article about how jobs are changing and with AI coming in, there are the ideas that used to be, we had to read so much to find the ideas. Now the ideas you type in certain words, and there is so much information that comes to you, so much faster. So your productivity increases. So AI is going to help with handled routine work. AI is going to help give you a lot of value added information. AI is going to help with people who even make decisions because a lot of the data can be analyzed, synthesized, and you can be given data, not in raw data, but something that can make sense and you can make decisions faster. I see AI very much as co pilot for the people managerial roles. I see AI actually a threat to many of the in routine jobs, because it can actually do work that routine work. So there is the, there AI is going to actually take away jobs. Those job holders need to be re skilled and re trained. That's what Singapore government is doing an amazing job in. AI is really going to change the way work is done, and because of that, the organizations would need to rethink their workflows and processes. We'll need to rethink of the way they design jobs and design teams. And rethink the way the organization is structured. Now what is the role of the central office? What can I push down into the countries? Where can I use AI so that, all this data can be changed, analyzed, and given in a way that people can make decisions? It's a huge change.

[00:16:24] Amy Springer: Actually I want to dig into that one a bit more. You mentioned that AI is changing the org design world in two ways. One is the organizations you're now designing are now going to look completely different as you just mentioned. But for you as a practitioner and when you're interacting with leaders in these companies how do you see that shifting? Is there anything in particular that you're needing leaders to change their behavior on?

[00:16:53] Shubha Narayanan: Actually, this place is changing so fast, it's changing so fast. So it's leaders themselves don't have all the answers. I neither do we have all the answers. That's where I find these collaborative teams come in. When there is, Supposedly, a specialist, a technology specialist, okay, then somebody comes from the user side to say, look, listen, this is what we have to deliver. Somebody comes from the customer experience side and say, look, this is what "Yes, you need to deliver this, but this is the experience the customer has to have", and then you come together and you say, where can I use this technology to enhance productivity but maximize the customer experience? Where can the human being add value and where can we leverage on technology? What can we do? So I think the in to answer your question, what behavior the leader needs? I would say it is to read a lot and to have an open mind and basically come with the idea to say, I don't have all the answers and let me work together, with my team and the biggest value add from the leader is to say, okay, this makes sense, but I think this direction is to give that sense of, yep, let's move in this direction and to give that forward thinking point of view.

[00:18:22] Amy Springer: So lots of listening, but making a firm decision in the end.

[00:18:26] Shubha Narayanan: Make sense making, like I call it making sense and giving that forward looking outlook.

[00:18:34] Tim Brewer: Yeah,

I mean I question and such an interesting answer. If the whole of industries are all doing that same thing, it's not like it's been impacting just one company, it's impacting that company, their suppliers. So you're going to see impacts both before and after them in the supply chain. It's going to be really interesting and competitive where AI changes the competitive nature of companies. Who's going to be the leader, who's going to lag, what will that do to the person laggings market? It's going to be very interesting to see what happens in the next three to five years, I think all of us.

[00:19:09] Shubha Narayanan: And, this is where I think the big "I" and the small "i" is going to make a difference. Yes, there's going to be big innovation, but it's so small, the small eyes that's going to happen. That's also, it's going to be, people are going to be trying. And I think. Gone are the days where we're going to have all answers before we actually make a change. But people are going to be trying, can I try this? Can I make this? How will this impact?

People are going to be constantly trying new things, pushing the envelope up. It made a change. Let me try and see whether I can change, take this idea somewhere else, and that's where I think these lateral structures and these cross functional will really help in cross pollination because an idea from this team comes into another team and then it goes on to another team, and that's the beauty and imagine the speed at which we will change.

[00:19:59] Tim Brewer: Yeah.

[00:20:01] Shubha Narayanan: and that is where I said the horizontal networks is going to happen, and the role of these leaders is going to be making these horizontal networks happen. Just because I put a person in another department and say, you're supposed to work with this department. That's not going to happen, but the role of the leader is to find ways that these people actually come together to create those forums, to create those opportunities where these like molecules colliding, make these opportunities for the organization to come together so that ideas spread and the whole organization learns faster and delivers faster.

[00:20:41] Tim Brewer: That's in my mind. That's the big takeaway from our conversation with you is for leaders to play a nurturing role as change happens so fast that you can't have the answers at the start of the change, but you can't afford to not change at the same time. Shuba, it's been so good to have you on the call. Thank you for your time and humility to chat to us about org design and the OrgSmiths work. We believe that there's no perfect organization but by listening to each other, we can learn and evolve our own org design skills. And we definitely have done that today is we all help leaders out in the marketplace in different ways, build better places to work for the great humans that exist at their organizations. Amy, thanks so much for joining me for another great podcast.

[00:21:28] Shubha Narayanan: Thank you very much, Tim. And thank you very much, Amy. Been fun chatting with you, and hope to see you in Singapore soon. And maybe we should chat up about the Asia Pacific org design forum. Let's make that a reality.


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