21st Century Organization Design: Integrating Work Environment, Work Experience, and Leadership

LRN is a company that has helped more than 500 organizations worldwide to develop ethical corporate cultures and inspire principled performance in business. Here’s how they did it for themselves.

This “how” graphic is seen throughout the office, and also appears on the cover of LRN CEO Dov Seidman’s book, How: Why HOW We Do Anything Means Everything.

This “how” graphic is seen throughout the office, and also appears on the cover of LRN CEO Dov Seidman’s book, How: Why HOW We Do Anything Means Everything.

“Three years ago, in front of my 300 colleagues at LRN, I ripped up our organizational chart and proclaimed that none of us would report to a boss anymore. From that point on, we would all “report” to our company mission. Literally. No one would experience life at LRN as someone else’s subordinate.”

Dov Seidman, Founder and CEO
New York Times, June 23, 2012

Adapting to a new organizational structure

New organizational structures, new workplace designs, and new leadership styles are emerging in almost every industry as businesses struggle to adapt and adjust to the changing realities of a global, transparent, and hyperconnected world. A growing number of companies are abandoning the “adapt” and “adjust” approach and opting instead for a new strategy: a renaissance in organizational design and leadership.

As more companies embrace and commit to a new strategy, many are becoming aware of challenges and barriers to making a successful and sustainable transition. The new organizational structures and workplace designs often require significant change in employee behavior and mindset. Some changes are not easy to manage and too often result in missed opportunities. Addressing these changes is critical to success and is a new priority for organizations.

According to Seidman, “When we selected our new building we wanted to be in the epicenter of a global discussion around how to rethink capitalism. We wanted our space to reflect capitalism’s original principles and ideals — to be rooted in fundamental values — while adapting the modern realities of a more interconnected and interdependent world and ensuring we were operating in the most up-to-date, environmentally sustainable, and technology-enabled environment. The spot [we chose] was the beautiful, Art Deco building at 745 5th Avenue in the Plaza District of Manhattan in New York City. From an environmental efficiency standpoint, it is ideal. From any place in the office, you have natural light pouring through. On the 8th floor, we are just above the tree line. It is a perfect height. From everywhere in the building you have a beautiful view of Central Park. In a lot of ways we are applying the idea that ‘what is old is new again’ but in ways it has never been before. The Churchill quote ‘We shape our dwellings and afterwards our dwellings shape us’ has always compelled us.”

The importance of the contemporary work environment is further expanded upon by Seidman in his best-selling book, HOW: Why HOW We Do Anything Means Everything:

“We are passionate about the forces that bear upon and elevate organizational and individual behavior. We are all about what elevates behaviors and therefore are intentional about space. Space reinforces and enables behaviors – particularly 21st century winning behaviors, like collaboration. You can’t talk about collaboration and have offices that are not consonant with that. You can’t talk about being flat while some people have offices and others don’t. We have a responsibility that everything we do is consonant with our values.”

The peer-to-peer network

In my own new book, Peer-to-Peer Leadership: Why the Network is the Leader, I introduce the peer-to-peer network community as a new way to think about organizational life, traditional views of work design, and success in the 21st century. The book outlines a new perspective and framework to implement a new renaissance strategy in organizational design and leadership.

The peer-to-peer (P2P) network community is an organizational architecture designed to unlock value from everyone in the organization, ignite innovation, and maximize organizational success. The organizational architecture integrates work environment (WEV), work experience (WEX) and leadership into an interlocking system of dynamic, relational connections all aligned around a common organizational purpose.

The peer-to-peer network community is an organizational architecture designed to unlock value from everyone in the organization, ignite innovation, and maximize organizational success.

The Work Environment (WEV) consists of the spatial and sensory aspects of the workplace. It is designed to be an expression of shared organization purpose as well as the alignment of values, business imperatives, and human needs with that purpose. It is designed to enable a workflow that promotes the dynamic movement of people and information — the continuous input and output of data and information. The WEV is made up of public spaces and private places, where both work and reflection occur.

As Seidman describes it, at LRN “the floor plan was intentionally fashioned to promote human interaction, meaningful conversations, and innovation. The floor does not have walled-off cubicles or offices in which colleagues would be closed off from the rest of the workspace. In keeping with the spirit of transparency that is an integral part of the culture of [the business], the interiors of all conference rooms are visible through glass doors or walls, though the design does allow for privacy as needed.”

Embracing new ways of working

LRN employees have not only embraced a new way of working but a new way of thinking about work. They’re saying things like, “The whole office is my office,” and: “At LRN we have a sandbox in which to be innovative and to make mistakes.”

The new way of working is evident from the moment you exit the elevator and enter the LRN space. You immediately see a wood carving with the LRN logo and tagline: Inspiring principled performance. The wood came from the property of John Jay, the first chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

The carving at the entrance of LRN’s office.

Every employee knows the story behind the wood carving and its significance to their work, reminding them that their business is rooted in the fundamentals of law, justice, and liberty. Stepping into the large lobby you can see a large open space that can be converted to a conference room with floor-to-ceiling glass walls. No one has an office and no one has to sit in the same place each day unless they prefer to do so. Seidman sits in same area as everybody else.

Employees move from location to location on a frequent basis. Conference rooms are interchangeable and all are named after respected, moral philosophers. Every space is a reflection of purpose, values, business imperatives, and human need. The public spaces include two kitchens, showers, bicycle rack, comfortable seating in the lobby and other areas throughout the space. Private places include interchangeable conference rooms and small rooms for private conversations.

The Work Experience (WEX) defines how the members of the community work together to accomplish the organization’s purpose, mission, and goals. In a P2P network community, each member works as a provider and receiver of information and assets. Each member has equal responsibility, authority and power to be a supplier and a consumer. Everyone gives and everyone takes. Everyone works toward a higher purpose.

For a P2P network community to achieve excellence and overall sustainable success, it must reach a level of maturity where all network communities work toward the organization’s common purpose. The journey starts with a new compass and a clear focus on integrating work experience, work environment, and leadership into an interlocking ecosystem.

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