Blog - The 4 Cs of organization design

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The four Cs of organization design

Organization design can make or break an organization. Leaders must be mindful of the four Cs: clarity, communication, culture, and characters.

Nicole Schaeffer, Jonathan McCoy, and Stephanie Runyan | August 18, 2015

People, processes, tools, and data bring organizational strategies to life. An organization’s unique culture—its structure, norms, routines, and individuals—can quickly take on a life of its own, unless purposefully and intentionally shaped by its leaders. As organizations grow and change, these organically-evolving infrastructures must be adjusted to account for emerging strategies, new leadership, or changing market conditions.

Good design can help organizations achieve their strategic goals by increasing clarity and communication for employees, while accounting for an organization’s culture and its characters. As market conditions, technologies, and people’s work expectations become increasingly more demanding, the need for well-defined and aligned organization design is more critical than ever.

Leaders, as you consider changes to organization design, keep the four Cs top of mind: clarity, communication, culture, and characters.


As organizations evolve, roles and responsibilities can change. As a result, processes and individual contributions need clarifying. To maximize adoption of a new organization design, you must explicitly state the connection between individuals’ work and how that work contributes to the organizational strategy.

Good design decreases resistance within the system and enables high performance by clarifying:

  • who does the work
  • how the work gets done
  • how each person’s work impacts the organizational strategy

According to the Corporate Leadership Council, “the most important [employee engagement] driver is a connection between an employee’s job and organizational strategy.” As such, clarity and alignment of these elements is essential. People want to contribute, but they also want to know how their contributions are helping the organization achieve its strategic objectives.


Organization design’s positive impact on communication is nothing new. The basic premise dates back as far as the mid-1800s, when the first organization chart was created by Daniel McCallum to provide clear channels for communication along the Erie railroad. The railroad had grown so big, and it needed a clear way to show how messages could and should move around the organization.

Today, businesses must move much faster than those in the 1800s to thrive. They’re far more complex, and the products and services they provide require much more integration. Meaningful, timely communication is necessary to maintain ability and agility in today’s competitive markets.

Good organization design creates an environment for effective, efficient, and meaningful communication. It removes obstacles and shortens the distance between groups and individuals by creating optimized channels for communication flow.


Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” – Peter Drucker, Social Ecologist

No design, however good, can succeed if it doesn’t work within the culture of the organization.

Culture, or the outward manifestation of the organization’s values and norms, must be accounted for in organization design. The design supports the culture by what it conveys to employees—for example, flat and lean versus tall and long structures; consensus driven or person-driven decisions—and by creating the ‘pipes’ through which, as Deal & Kennedy put it, “things gets done around here.”

The industrial revolution up-ended the organic, bottom-up structures to create systems designed to deconstruct work into its smallest component. As a result, the organization chart was dehumanized to become a picture of work decomposition and create cultures that were hierarchical and siloed.

Organizational complexity and the need for integration is on the rise, yet we still hold on to the top-down, deconstructed remnants of yesterday. As a result, the need for organizations to reflect the culture they are or want to be is crucial.


Good design also accounts for the messy, emotional, powerful, creative, and engaged characters that bring an organization to life.

These characters, and the capabilities they possess, exert great influence—whether the founders whose hearts run through the organization, or the legends of those who started sweeping floors and now run operations, or the technically exceptional with the emotional intelligence of a sour lemon. The placement of these characters must be deliberate and strategic. Their strong personalities can make or break an organization’s ability to realize its strategy by spreading positivity or negativity.

Jonathan McCoy is a practice area lead in Slalom Atlanta’s organizational effectiveness practice. He serves a team that drives meaningful work through the power of people and organizations. Jonathan is passionate about helping individuals and teams become excellent. Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @themccoyisreal.

Jonathan McCoy is no longer with Slalom.

Nicole Schaeffer is a solution architect in Slalom's organizational effectiveness practice with a focus on organization development, design, and transformation. Nicole is passionate about creating enjoyable, effective workplaces by enabling people and organizations to excel in tandem.

Stephanie Runyan is an experienced organizational development consultant in Slalom Atlanta’s organizational effectiveness practice. Stephanie serves her clients by helping them achieve their full potential.

Stephanie Runyan is no longer with Slalom.


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