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The secret to creating high performing organisations


Organisations can get away with just being good enough when there’s not tough external scrutiny or they’re not driven to be the best. This is perhaps a controversial statement given this isn’t what management and economic textbooks teach us – but competition isn’t always as cut throat as sometimes we’re led to believe. This is because customers don’t always exert their power to take their business elsewhere. Moreover, designing and building a great organisation that is high performing is very difficult.

So what’s the difference between poor design, ‘good enough’ design and great design?

It’s relatively easy to spot poor design, and to turn it into one that is ‘good enough’. For example, an organisation’s structure might create unnecessary tensions between executives or have too many management layers. Processes may have unnecessary hand-offs and poorly designed IT systems may dehumanise front line staff and customer experience. Moreover, line managers may not have the skills, or even the time, to coach and motivate staff to bring out the best in them.

Capable managers should be able to spot and fix these issues – or at least bring in people who can help them. These are not always quick fixes and can take time, money and energy, but whilst complicated, they are relatively straightforward to scope, plan and deliver.

But getting from capable design to great design is a much tougher challenge. It requires:

  • insight and clarity into how the organisation makes a real difference for the stakeholders it exists to serve

  • calibrating design choices against the contribution to these stakeholder outcomes

  • determining the organisation capabilities needed, and making sure they work together well.

With one of my recent clients we discussed how best to get insight into what stakeholders will want in the future. Our answer was not to go and ask them, at least not initially, but for the leadership team to spend time empathising with their stakeholders and exploring what they should expect from them in the future. After all, they were better placed to identify this and to work through the implications.

This might seem to counter prevailing wisdom, but perhaps it doesn’t. Steve Jobs famously said “it's hard for customers to tell you what they want when they've never seen anything like it.” Phil Schiller, senior vice president of global marketing at Apple, recently reiterated that they don’t rely on market research to shape features of their products – and few would argue that their products are not designed with their users in mind.

We have developed an approach to business design which links operating model design choices to the design of the customer value proposition, and to strategic choices of where to play in the market. We have drawn on approaches from organisation design, business architecture and customer strategy to do this in our mission to design organisations that become great.

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