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Evolution has exponential qualities—one single cell is father and mother to millions of species alive today. If simple cells (prokaryotes) had not through the wondrous and inexplicable force of change over time evolved into complex cells (eukaryotes), which in due time morphed into simple animals laying the foundation for more complex animals, [fast forward a few mega-annums] we, Homo sapiens, may not exist today. The organisms that survived to participate in the next evolutionary leap were the ones that were adaptive.

Evolution

Organizations are not unlike living organisms in this way. Organizations that have withstood the test of time have been able to adapt and respond to external and internal stimuli.

Organisms and organizations that adapt and evolve survive.

But all adaptations are not equal. For example, I can put on a sweater when the air conditioning is too cold, but that superficial adaption will not allow me to survive in the Artic like a polar bear. The most effectual adaptations happen on the molecular level—a gene mutation that allows me to develop a thick fatty layer and an even thicker fur covering. What, then, is the molecular level of an organization? An organism’s genes (DNA) dictate various biological traits that are fundamental to what or who the organism is. Likewise, an organization’s molecular level would have to be the primary dictating apparatus. At the most basic level, it is a firm’s organizational structure that is the DNA of everything it does. Organizational design affects how an organization fundamentally functions and operates. It’s the framework by which decisions about the culture, values, services, and even external relationships are made.

Not surprisingly, an organization’s structure can either be conducive or maladaptive to organizational goals. For example, you may find that the divisions in your organization replicate administrative functions. Could changing the organizational structure to integrate administrative functions help better accomplish your goal? Would this administrative integration result in better interdepartmental communication as well?  Alternatively, do you find organizational decision making cumbersome? Is this a sign of weak or confused organizational DNA?   Could revisiting the rules and procedures as well as duties and responsibilities provide clearer guidance for how final decisions are reached?

Over time, it is possible for an organization’s structure to become ill-suited for present day function.  Being purposeful in our pursuit of organizational evolution allows us to remain adept in fulfilling our purpose. Unlike organisms, organizations can intentionally change their DNA and be proactive in the evolutionary process. By periodically asking, Is our current organizational structure conducive to achieving our mission?, an organization positions itself to take advantage—while mitigating the consequences—of change.

If you want to learn more about organizational design, this MindTools article highlights a few models and probes into how each can align with goals.