The Intentional Organisation - Issue #38 - Desire Paths of (un)intentional design
1. Desire Paths of (un)Intentional Design
I'm sure you have all seen dozens of "Desire Paths" images. There's a great group on Reddit with hundreds of examples if you haven't. “Desire Path” does reflect the reality of design: one thing is designing something on paper, and one thing is matching the daily usage of people. People take alternate routes instead of the built path because they are more convenient. Over time, a new “desire path” is created that is different from the one designed.
In design terms, desire paths represent traces of use or wear that indicate preferred interaction done by users with an object or environment. They are sometimes seen as concrete examples of the concept of paths of least resistance.
If these can very well represent our aim for walking in the physical world, similar "shortcuts" exist in the fabric of every designed object or environment. And it is not just about the "unintended" consequences of design, but it tells us a lot also about the capability to explore and innovate.
Desire Path in Org Design
Why is this relevant in Organisation Design? Let's see a couple of examples.
Informal Networks dominate how organisations operate and often completely replace "formal" organisational charts in assessing communication flows, decision-making, and power mechanisms.
Cross-Functional Project Teams dominate successful innovation projects in many organisations, often adopting "exceptions" to policies and internal procedures to ensure speed and resource allocation.
Matrix Organisation Design often reflects an informal balance of power between "functional" and "business-driver" alignment, with processes not-aligned.
Side-processes exist in many organisations to "shadow" the major organisational liturgies (like budgeting, for example) and ensure monitoring and control beyond the formal objectives of the systems.
Excel still dominates in terms of individual users for reporting and analysis of data, also where large ERP and analytics solutions are in place.
These are just a few organisational Desire Paths, whereby individuals and teams "shape" their environments looking for paths that better "fit" their specific objectives.
When we think about organisation design, we need to take very well in mind the existence of these shortcuts. But we also need to be careful.
On one side, they can very well represent the need for speed, agility, and innovation within an organisation that is not adaptable enough. On the other hand, however, there can also be a misalignment, whereby individual objectives are pursued instead of organisational ones.
In both cases, investigations are necessary to assess the reasons behind these customised routes. We can do this through a formal five-step process, as Andreas Knoth suggested. In any case, the focus is to look at the relationship between the Action of the individuals and the Structure we put in place through the organisation design work.
Intentionality, Organisational Debt and Organisation Design
This concept attracted me because a Desire Path expresses an intentional action by individuals that ultimately changes the environment. This can be linked to lazy people who thus choose to walk the shortest distance. But can there also be another reading?
I made a mental connection with the concept of Organisational Debt a few weeks ago: many of the examples of desire paths that we see in organisations seem to be an attempt to overcome precisely the type of organisational debts we have seen.
people try to find alternative ways of communication when the designed organisation chart ones do not work as desired;
managers establish cross-functional teams when the organisational structure conforms to silos, therefore hindering the capacity to achieve results;
informal matrices often happen when a specific organisation form is chosen, not taking into consideration competencies or "job family" solidarity;
side-processes get established to avoid the shortcomings (sometimes perceived more than real) of the central systems;
Excel usage is a prime example of where the objectives of the individual (using a tool that allows to "think the way I do") might hurt broader organisational goals (using the same systems and data sources). Up to the point that Excel is often the culprit of many unsuccessful implementations of BI projects. I also listened to a CEO that mandated its IT to uninstall Excel from every PC in the organisation to "force" people to use the new shiny Business Intelligence dashboard.
This case apart, all other examples show the possibility of "Desire Paths" as alternative measures to circumvent organisational debt. So is it correct for individuals to be "paying off" a debt that the organisation is incurring?
Intentional or unintentional?
The most important aspect is what do we do with these desired paths? As I exchanged views on the topic of this newsletter, one colleague argued that the existence itself of Desire Paths is one of the best exemplifications that truly intentional organisations don't really exist, because individual action can create inconsistencies.
To me it's the opposite: the existence of organisational desire paths shows that people take intentional actions when they see inconsistencies in the fabric of the organisation. This is precisely my experience within VF when I established the HR Retail Team for EMEA. I had been given an objective to create strong competencies in the field, underlining the change of strategy the company was undergoing to a more focused DTC business. This meant moving around a lot of "organisational inconsistencies". The entire organisation had been designed for its wholesale business. Stores demanded different competencies and different ways of working. I took an enormous amount of "shortcuts" to allow this to happen, but this ultimately allowed the entire organisation to change and adapt.
My actions, though, were not just because of personal caprice, but because of the need to bend rules to achieve the assigned objective.
This is the essence, I believe, of what being agile means in an organisational context. Taking the fastest route between A and B, even when there is a designed path that is, however, more time-consuming.
The importance of this concept lies also in the experience that many of us have, when teams are able to achieve results despite the organisation of the company they work for.
Desire Paths should become more of a leadership aim then, or?
What do you think?
Cover Photo via Twitter @SarahNicholas. Ohio State image via Reddit.
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