The structure of any organization is key to its ability to function productively. In my role of chief executive officer for the Professional Association of Resident Physicians of Alberta (PARA), I was concerned that our organizational form wasn’t aligned with our intended function. My challenge was to take a group of volunteer resident physicians through a design process that would enable our organization to more effectively live its mission: representation for physicians completing further training in a residency program; advocacy for excellence in education and patient care; and optimal working conditions and personal well-being for all its members.
PARA had a number of organizational practices that led to a disconnect between what the organization had intended to achieve, and how it had evolved to achieve it. It was in this context that I, along with one additional staff member and one resident physician volunteer, found ourselves in Banff for three snow-filled days in December, keen to learn about the 4-D process of organizational design. Teaching the Queen’s IRC Organizational Design program was Brenda Barker Scott.
Within the first few hours of the session, my expectations were shattered. Here I thought I was going to get a ready-made template – all I would have to do is insert PARA into an existing governance model. Instead, after that first day, what I went away with was a better understanding of the path we had chosen. We were actually going to take stock of our organization – through the Queen’s IRC Blueprint for Organizational Effectiveness – and we were going to build our own governance model.
This revelation made me nervous, and set off alarm bells in my head; I distinctly remember at least three occasions during the program when I confided my concerns to Brenda, our organizational design guru. “How in the world are we going to get from where we are now to where we need to be?”
Brenda’s calm and confident response was always the same. “Trust in the process, Sarah. Try not to get fixated on the outcome.”
In this spirit, the three of us embarked on our design journey. We committed to trusting in the process; each time any of us got agitated about our yet-to-be-discovered outcome, we would anchor ourselves in Brenda’s wisdom to trust in the process – define, discover, design and do.
The define phase was marked by clarifying the issue at hand. The scope of our project focused on PARA’s infrastructure and our relationships. How could PARA be designed to better manage our volunteer turnover, transition periods, and nature of the work? How could PARA better develop and nurture networks between our members, volunteers, stakeholders and staff? During the define phase, involvement was clearly outlined – who would be involved and when, including what each groups’ responsibilities would be. Understanding PARA’s purpose and context was also a key component of this phase. To answer these questions, we looked to those who had chosen and elected to be involved – our leadership team, design team, contribution team and our contributing stakeholders.
In the discovery stage of this process, the design team was challenged to process all the information that had been gathered, and refine these ideas into discrete criteria statements for the organization. The team came up with seven criteria statements: PARA must be designed to… so that we can achieve… One example of a refined criteria statement is: PARA must be designed to recruit and build diverse leadership capacity so that we can be informed by distinct perspectives and have a collective voice.
From here, the design team was tasked with designing a new framework, which included new processes and policies for our organization. This stage was the heavy lifting, and required the design team to translate the newly developed criteria into the language of “how”; the how would clearly outline strategies for achieving the criteria. This translation included the development of brand new processes, groupings and linkages: a new elections process, reporting structure, committees and working groups, transition policies, and knowledge management infrastructure and protocol. Looking back, the design stage sounded so daunting, but because we didn’t get fixated on the outcome, the design criteria really spoke for itself and the “how” truly just flowed out of the process.
Next stage in the process was “do”. While this stage seemed to be a lot more straightforward, that wasn’t necessarily the case. At this point, only the design team understood what needed to be done. We needed all of those involved to understand and buy into the “what” and the “how”. Luckily, by design, through every step of the processes, we consulted, communicated and sought feedback. I remembered Brenda’s advice: check in often and tell a story: “Here is what we asked you; this is what you told us; here is what we did.” Consult, communicate, feedback, repeat – by the time we got to the point where we were asking our elected members to accept the new bylaws, getting them passed was easy.
This year will be the litmus test as PARA puts our new structure into action through a newly organized and empowered assembly of elected representatives. Our momentum and energy for success is high. Those involved in the project discovered that organizational design is an endurance test, and that Brenda’s advice was sound. You don’t get to the finish line by focusing on the end, you get there by diligent investment and trust in the journey – define, discover, design and do.
About the Author
Sarah Thomas has recently moved on from her role as chief executive officer of the Professional Association of Resident Physicians of Alberta. Sarah provided leadership to the organization’s staff and volunteer board of directors for over eight years. Sarah is looking forward to starting a new role with the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta in August, 2013.