Bring the ‘suits’ and ‘cardigans’ together 

Successful transformation needs strategy and culture to work together from the start
Sarah Beart and Toby Lindsay
A business meeting

Have you ever looked at what was going on in your organisation and thought it just wasn’t working well enough? Performance not where it needs to be, targets not met, staff survey results getting worse, with difficulty working out who is accountable?

You’re not alone. The Office of National Statistics’ shows a continual decline in output, and according to EY’s latest report, 58% of CEOs are accelerating their transformation plans to reimagine their business, almost triple the number since July last year.

Maybe you addressed the performance issues by calling in the strategy consultant ‘suits’, to analyse your value chains, pore over your company processes, examine the contribution of different profit centres and make some snappy recommendations about what needs to change. They may have already started a transformation project, redesigning your company structure and presented you with a new operating model and a change implementation plan. All nicely set out in a well-structured Gantt chart with key deliverables, milestones and outcomes defined from the outset.

This has partly worked. Things within the organisation have definitely shifted and change is underway but some people are having difficulty adjusting to the new rules. There’s still a lot of grumbling, and the benefits are not quite where you hoped they would be. Unintended consequences have sprung up such as people distracted from their day-to-day job, senior leaders leaving and, as a result, some are saying that the plans should change. However, the transformation programme is clearly laid out and it is important for the business to follow through on commitments.

Alternatively, perhaps you invited the ‘cardigans’, the organisation development team or their consultants of choice, to explore your culture, the effectiveness of your leaders, and the quality of collaboration within the workplace. This team may have suggested working on the company values, some leadership development, a bit more agility, and perhaps a culture change initiative. Maybe this values and behaviours programme will be the one that finally makes a difference to performance. In any case, employees do always value time together and some reflective space.

Perhaps the ‘cardigans’ have helped your organisation embark on some or all of these initiatives, and this has made a bit of a difference. Yet, some teams who were always arguing are still at odds, no one is feeling accountable for the lack of performance, and it’s hard to demonstrate the return on your investment from the change projects. While those who supported your organisation and its workforce have done so in a very humane and careful manner, you can’t help feeling a bit underwhelmed with the results.

Over the last year or so, we have been looking at the history and the effects of separating organisation design and development when trying to improve businesses. What we noticed was that the consultant ‘suits’ of organisation design tend to come from finance or MBA backgrounds, commissioned by the strategy or transformation functions within the business. While, the ‘cardigans’ of organisation development, typically with learning and development, psychology or coaching skills, are often appointed by the HR or people and culture function.

The “cardigans told us about being hired to provide a side order of leadership and culture work alongside the main business transformation, or in some cases to ‘mop up’ after a brutal reorganisation. On the other side, “suits” spoke about coming in to run strategy and operating model work, knowing that despite solid analysis and thoughtful planning that, in the old cliché, culture would eat their strategising for breakfast.

Many consultants find themselves hired to wear one kind of outfit, and yet trying to uphold the other’s perspective. Both know that without attention to the qualities of human interaction no redesign will realise its supposed benefits, and without attention to blurred accountability and conflicting incentives among senior leaders no amount of the executive team getting to know each other better is going to ensure the organisation meets its forecast. Structure and behaviour are inextricably linked in organisational life, each impacting the other, if such distinctions are in fact real. Some would argue they are so entangled that to attempt to approach them separately is a crucial first mistake.

At a practical level, in organisational life, things get split along two or three lines:

  • in time; having the culture and leadership work follow the redesign
  • in space; by splitting the suit and cardigan work into separate events and workstreams
  • through people; hiring some people to lead the suit work and some to be cardigans

And yet, almost unanimously the people doing the work think that organisations would get much better results if the two perspectives were joined up from the start.

How and why did they ever separate you may be wondering? What had been an integrated discipline (drawing on the sociotechnical thinking of the 1950s) largely under the remit of “personnel departments” then separated itself in the latter half of the 20th century into the “social” (including sub-disciplines such as leadership development, culture, and team building), and the “technical”, (including sub-disciplines such as organisation structure, role definition, and business process re-engineering).

What was good about this? It allowed the nice cardigan people to distance themselves from the unpleasant tasks of making efficiency savings and dealing with headcount reductions. It also meant that the good suit people could stay away from the tumultuous consultations and emotional aftermath of their impeccably logical and well thought-through redesign. Matters would appear simpler, and there would always be other people to blame for the lack of progress.

Whatever theoretical standpoint we may take, we know in practice that this separation of the social and the technical is artificial. Leaders know that new organisational designs don’t work unless changes in relationships and connections are attended to, and that the “side order” of culture work can’t overcome badly organised processes.

When we asked strategic change practitioners what to do about this, there were suggestions that senior leaders should change how they frame their organisational changes and whose help they sought. But instead of asking others to change what they do, we have been challenging ourselves to maintain the joint perspectives, and to keep the need for human connection closely coupled to rigorous strategic thinking.

We believe that if practitioners, whether they are in the fields of strategy or organisation development and change, are serious about making a difference to businesses, then they need to (re)join forces.

So, leaders, our invitation to you is to be more demanding. Don’t stand for any of the separations.

Insist that both kinds of change happen together in your transformation, and that the people leading the work have the experience and skill to hold both the suit and the cardigan perspective.

Co-authored to Sarah Beart, Partner at Metalogue, strategic change partners, and Toby Lindsay, Senior Consultant and lead for OD at renowned independent think tank, The King’s Fund

Written by
Sarah Beart and Toby Lindsay
March 4, 2024