How transferable are organization design and organization development principles/thinking to small business (think 2-20 employees)?

Hi friends,

I’m trying to find info on using the know-how from org design and org development fields in the small business context. The majority of what I find seems to be heavily focused in the large org space. Some background: these are Southern African/African small businesses - where small businesses are seldom the sexy, hip startups from California, but rather businesses born out of necessity in very challenging conditions, economically and socially…

ANY help/directions/recommendations will be very much appreciated! :wink:

Hi Eddie,

I might be missing some context in terms of what problems you’re trying to solve, but my experience has been that most org design // development learning is not super useful in a small business // early-stage startup regardless of the context. I think a lot of OD work is about how to get an organization to function well, and when you have only a small number of people, that’s typically not one of the big problems since you function more like a small group than an “organization.” You don’t have the challenges of things like how to keep incentives aligned, how to align people to strategy that’s several levels removed from them, how to organize people around different and diverse bodies of work, etc.

Some of the management, interpersonal, and role clarity work underlying all of this can certainly be useful at any size, but my take is that OD as a field is really about solving the problems of organizations that happen once they grow beyond a small group of employees. Not necessarily only big orgs – definitely for small orgs too – but thinking 50+ or even 25+. Just my take though :). I have worked in East Africa so assuming the context is similar and small businesses are often more like 5-10 people.


Same here: not sure what problem you would like to solve.

If it is about being the not sexy small business for (future) employees: maybe you can get a few more business owners together and bundle your data and insights.

Hi Eddie,

Short answer: yes. I think many principles are the same, regardless of team size. Teams should be oriented towards a customers’ needs; there should be clear delineation of roles and responsibilities; leaders should strive to increase psychological safety. When we (NOBL) work with teams, we start new practices in smaller groups, and only once they’ve been tested do we scale them in the rest of the organization.

Self-plug: you might want to check out The Academy, which has over 200 free tools and case studies of new ways of working—everything from more effective meeting tips to succession planning and navigating change as a team.


Thank you all, appreciate the feedback.

Hi Eddie, sorry, this is a bit late. Most OD literature comes from research with large organizations and much of it is qualitative so cannot be generalized to smaller organizations. Nonetheless, my experience in the field suggests that specific programs and approaches can be successfully applied to smaller organizations, just depends upon what you consider OD to mean. If you think of OD as simply a more human way of leading or changing an organization, then why wouldn’t we apply those principles to all sizes of organizations?

Hi EddieVR,

While there are transferable concepts for OD&D from the large organisational settings, you will probably find value in looking at small business start up research. Regardless of how “sexy” the business is, people are people. The other areas that you might find interesting is Dysfunctional Teams (Lencioni) and Psychological Safety Leadership. These concepts are not limited to team/business size and they are valuable for all business AND family applications

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