Fresh Ideas


Designing for Collaboration

Brenda and colleague Michael Manning recently published an article to help leaders optimize their collaborative efforts for the world of work. Designing for Collaboration: Don’t Just Focus on the Team, Focus Also on the Context in Which Teams Work is a deep dive into how threecontextual factors related to work, relationships, and behaviors shift the setting from a place where collaboration is hard to do, to one that embodies collaboration as a widespread competence.

Organizational culture and design in the new normal

The pandemic has resulted in a very different work environment, one where so many people are working from home and isolated from their colleagues. C3inc spoke with Brenda Barker Scott on their podcast Channeled about the new world of work and what leaders need to do to keep everyone connected.

Listen to the episode: Organizational culture and design in the new normal

Brenda’s Work with Queen’s IRC

Over her twenty-year career in teaching and consulting, Brenda has led ambitious renewal efforts aimed at enhancing innovation and collaboration with provincial governments and agencies, school boards, not-for-profits and private firms.

When working with leadership teams, she combines strong theoretical knowledge with practical methodologies to ensure that the right people are engaged in the right conversations to design robust and workable strategies.

Brenda is an instructor on a number of Queen’s IRC programs including Designing Collaborative Workplaces, Organizational Design and Organization Development Foundations.

Brenda has several articles and worksheets available on the Queen’s IRC website.

Successful organizational design.

Brenda Barker Scott outlines the key aspects of effective organizational design for the 21st century

As technology and automation continue to have an increasingly significant impact on the world, organizations are being forced to rethink their strategies and redesign their structures. The world of business is growing more and more competitive; as a result, organizations across all industries must find ways to boost efficiencies and differentiate themselves from the crowd.

Effective organizational design is rapidly becoming a fundamental aspect of enabling successful companies to continue achieving good results. The very nature of work is changing, and organizations that recognize this and commit to analyzing and, if necessary altering their organizational design have a good chance of remaining both relevant and successful in the new age of business.

When Brenda Barker Scott started working in the organizational design space many years ago, she also happened to be working with an architect to design and build her own home. Barker Scott, who is an instructor on a number of programs at the Queen’s University Industrial Relations Centre, including “Designing Collaborative Workplaces,” “Organizational Design” and “Organization Development Foundations,” instantly noticed a parallel between her professional life and her attempts to build her dream home.

“Designs with steep hierarchies, centralized authority and narrowly defined jobs are hopelessly out of date” Brenda Barker Scott, Queen’s University Industrial Relations Centre

“We really wanted to build a house that would take of advantage of our resources and fit within the external environment, but also meet the needs of our family,” Barker Scott says. “That is exactly what I am doing when I help an organization design their most ideal structure. I don’t go to them with five different designs that might fit their business or industry; I start with their needs. From there, we figure how best to frame the key building blocks of good organizational design for their specific situation.”

Just as an architect needs to understand a client’s needs and desires before starting to design a home, Barker Scott says an organization eager to embrace change must consider some key questions in order to get a clear and holistic picture of their needs and capabilities: What are the performance drivers? What capabilities need to be developed and honed? How do resources need to be shared? Who needs to link with whom? What mindsets and protocols are required, and who decides?

“Good design incorporates these relational, procedural and social elements – the DNA, so to speak – to ensure that people are grouped and linked, as well as led and supported, to focus on the core work,” says Barker Scott, who co-authored the book Building Smart Teams: A Roadmap to High Performance and graduated with a master of industrial relations degree from Queen’s. “Just like a building is composed of many design elements that must fit together – from the plumbing to the electrical to eventually the curtains – so too do the design tests combine to create a holistic foundation for design. With the strategic goals as the base foundation, the tests combine to support the right types of work, capability development, flexibility, coordination, accountability, leadership and motivation.”

The key to good design

One of the key aspects of organizational design is alignment. An organization can have a well thought out and proven strategy, but without meaningful connection and engagement or the right resources or relationships, the strategy is ultimately just a piece of paper. Rather than creating a level of cohesion that enables an organization to frame core work, an ineffective structural design creates a friction that is detrimental to employee happiness and organizational success.

“With global, technological and social trends dramatically altering customer expectations for quality, service, timeliness and innovation, new organizational forms are evolving to enable greater innovation, speed and flexibility,” Barker Scott says. “Designs with steep hierarchies, centralized authority and narrowly defined jobs are hopelessly out of date. From Lars Kolind’s spaghetti organization to Gareth Morgan’s organic network, the DNA of these new forms is dramatically different from that of the traditional bureaucracy – they are entirely different entities.”

For any forward-thinking organization that wants to rethink its design, Barker Scott recommends first ‘living’ the design process. Select a team, department or division in the organization as a case study, and then get a clear handle on the events, trends and developments that are impacting this team’s success and viability. When the designers are firmly rooted in the things that are driving the redesign effort, they can test the fitness of their current design to meet those challenges and opportunities.

Avoiding cracks
Common design issues, also known as cracks, include an inability to adapt, role confusion, duplication of work, poor relationships, unclear authority, insufficient resources and, in some cases, an inability to focus on the core value-added work. In order to test the fitness of the design structure, Barker Scott has developed a series of organizational effectiveness tests related to the core capabilities that every organization should develop, hone and align.

  • Fit for strategy test: Does your design enable staff to focus on and achieve your strategy – the core value-added work?
    Flexibility test: Does your design enable people to adapt as necessary to day-to-day shifts, fluctuating workloads, customer needs and developing strategies?
  • Capabilities and resources test: Does your design focus resources on and enable the execution of required capabilities?
    Relationships test: Does your design permit seamless and easy interactivity between areas that need to cooperate and collaborate?
  • Accountability test: Do people know who has accountability for what? Are they enabled to make decisions and act?
  • People test: Do we understand the job roles that are critical to organizational success (pivotal roles for now and in the near future)? Are we able to fill them with talented and motivated people?
  • Leadership test: Do our leaders at each level of heirarchy add value through a knowledge or coordination or performance coaching benefit? Do our leaders infuse the organization with a common performance spirit?
  • Feasibility test: Do we understand, and are we operating within, the financial, technological, legislative or resource constraints bounding our organization?

“As designers reflect on each test, they will identify the design issues, or cracks, that need to be addressed via the design process,” Barker Scott says. “Depending on the focus, breadth and depth of the design issues identified, the work may require fine-tuning within a unit or a full-blown examination of multiple units and levels. If, for example, the current organizational form does not easily permit people to focus on the right work or to develop core capabilities or to coordinate activities, the scope of the work will be quite broad. On the other hand, if the current form permits the right kinds of work focus, flexibility and connectivity, but blocks accountability, then accountability will be the primary focus.”

Millennials: a breath of fresh air!

I’ve heard a lot of people in my classes recently commenting about the work habits of millennials:

  • How they expect to advance early and often – mobility
  • How they expect a flexible workday – arriving late or leaving early to accommodate their personal schedules.
  • How they expect constant feedback, both coaching and praise.
  • How they expect work to be fun.

Many of these comments seem to suggest that these are negative attributes. I say that millennials are a breath of fresh air – helping to refresh our work environments and increase productivity to boot.

If we look at millennial behaviour from the perspective of our old world work environments, characterised by mechanistic principles of bureaucracy — with defined jobs, set hours, stability, and advancement up the career ladder via seniority – then their expectations seem indulgent.

However, if we view millennial expectations from the new world work environments, we can see that millennial work habits are ideally suited for learning, knowledge sharing and creativity.

Consider the following:

Why do millennials crave mobility? The new currency for job security is the continuous development of one’s skill, and not seniority. That’s why millennials covet opportunities to develop, grow and advance. They will leave your organization if they are not growing, with good reason.

Why do millennials thrive on flexibility? Fatigue and stress narrow thinking and limit effort. Healthy, well rested people are more apt to stretch and engage wholeheartedly. If we want our employees to be creative and energetic, there is good reason to support millennial expectations for work-life flexibility, whether it be accommodating their needs for childcare, yoga, or a cooking class. When the work permits, instead of managing the clock, give millennials a goal and outcome to achieve, and allow them to manage their time, their way.

Why do millennials seek feedback? Feedback is the essential ingredient for learning and improvement. Without it, we do not get the data we need to adjust and improve. Given that millennials are focused on learning, developing and advancing, and at a rapid rate, the yearly performance review is sorely outdated. If you manage or work with millennials, give them the feedback, both praise and coaching, they so need to develop.

What’s up with all the play? If you are surprised by millennial requests for lunches, themed dress-up days, clubs, and sporting events, two factors are at play here. First, millennials understand that complex challenges are accomplished through social relationships. People connecting with each other to share and collaborate is the fuel for innovative problem solving. Second, millennials view work and life fluidly, and do not see a line between one’s work and social relationships. Millennials are setting about to make our organizations friendlier, more social places.

It’s easy to fall into the habit of stereotyping generations, often in a negative way. If we take a more positive approach, we can see that millennial expectations are well matched to the needs of the new world of work. Perhaps, rather than focusing on differences, we need to reflect on the new realities of the world of work, and how we can reimagine the employee experience to create a respectful, engaging and energizing environment for all.

When your co-worker isn’t human

In the popular television series Star Trek: The Next Generation, one member of the crew – Data – was an android designed to interact as humanly as possible with its colleagues. It made for great TV – but now, it’s also becoming a reality. Researchers have developed sophisticated automated workers in many work sectors, including manufacturing, health care, hospitality and yes, even in an office environment. For example:

  • Tangy, an assistive robot designed to help people with degenerative cognitive conditions, works alongside human staff in nursing homes, telling jokes and leading games of Bingo to encourage interaction among residents.
  • KASPAR, a child-sized ‘humanoid robot’ is designed to help children with autism by engaging them in activities and teaching them how to communicate with others.
  • Botlr, who looks and sounds a bit like R2D2, delivers room service items to hotel rooms – no tipping required.
  • Betty, an autonomous robot designed by researchers at the University of Birmingham in the U.K. is undergoing a pilot study as a trainee office manager. Betty keeps track of who’s in the office, monitors the office environment and greets customers at reception.

What would it be like having a robot in the cubicle next to you? Would it creep you out? Would you treat it the same as your human colleagues? What if a robot was your boss?

How do HR, LR and OD managers develop policies and structure around android workers? How will their presence impact workplace culture and conflict?

It’s clear that robotic technology will continue to evolve and shape our work in the future. Let’s make sure that our organizational structure takes this into account we design our systems and prepare to welcome a very different type of diversity in the office.

Want to chat about this? Contact me for a conversation!

Virtual workers: the race to the bottom

Let’s say your organization needs a writer to create website content and marketing materials. You could hire a writer to join your team on a full or part-time basis. You could pay an advertising firm to take on the project. Or you could go online and find a ‘virtual worker’ for a fraction of the cost. Which would you choose?

According to a recent report (link to: from Policy Horizons Canada (link to:, online work platforms are having a significant impact on the way that companies hire, pay and retain people.

There are several online work platforms that connect organizations with workers., for example, allows companies to post projects and receive bids from individuals in over 240 countries. At, individuals will write website copy for as little as $6.58. Need technical support? You can hire some at for as little as $10.00 an hour. And that’s just a small sample of the many virtual worker programs online — the World Bank Group estimates this market is growing by 33% each year.

At first glance, a free market model may seem appealing. What a great way to cut costs and get access to a wide range of talent! But scratch below the surface, and you’ll find a structure that has a significant impact on job security, pay levels and our social net. If you can hire a freelancer, why would you offer full-time employment and all the benefits that go with it? How do Canadians maintain standards around minimum wages, work hours and timely payments when competing globally? What does this mean for our next generation, and their quality of living?

There are no easy answers to these questions. As organizations struggle to remain competitive in a global market, it can be tempting to focus cost-cutting strategies on human talent. But there are several other factors that come into play, including the value of employee engagement, valuable relationships for supporting your goals, and the quality of the output from freelancers who have no foundational knowledge of your company or a stake in its success.

It can be tempting to join the race to the bottom, forever chasing the cheapest rates for goods and services. But at what cost?

Seven characteristics of the new employee

Your workforce is changing. By 2020, it’s estimated that over half of your employees will be millennials, a technologically-savvy cohort with very different expectations for their careers. Do you know how to attract, nurture and retain them? Consider these seven characteristics when developing recruitment, compensation and professional development strategies for your organization:

  1. Make it meaningful – Millennials are looking for challenging projects that optimize their talents and make a difference to your organization and their world.
  2. Collaboration is key – Your newest hires are looking to break free from the old world of hierarchies and rigid infrastructure. Instead, look for ways to build interdisciplinary teams and break down the traditional barriers to collaboration.
  3. Use the right tools – Technology is shifting who does what work, and how. Millennials grew up using technology to communicate and collaborate, and they expect to have the same tools at their disposal in the workplace.
  4. Build Relationships –Today’s 24/7 global work environment means that your workforce is likely more connected than ever with their colleagues, both on and off the clock. They are looking for a more personal experience with their peers, but also with their mentors and managers, who can help them grow their career.
  5. Switch it up – Gone are the days of a 30-year career in one job or department. Today, career mobility is critical to attracting top talent, with opportunities to use skills in different ways across your organization.
  6. Learning by doing – Millennials are used to trying out new ideas and new technologies by experimenting and collaborating with others. They expect to be allowed to learn by doing, and even make mistakes from time to time.
  7. A work/life balance – The rise of technology and globablization has led to a blurring of lines between work and home. Your new employees are willing to support a fluid work environment, but it must be coupled with flexibility for their own interests and activities.

Wondering how to structure your organization to attract and retain the best talent? Contact Brenda today for a free initial consultation.