Imagine if the latest idea for a medical therapy went from some scientist’s PowerPoint proposal directly into production and out to pharmacies around the world? It’s a terrifying thought, and thankfully drugs aren’t developed that way. Rather, there is a methodical process that evolves from an idea founded in prior research and theory, to in vitro testing in a petri dish, in vivo testing in animals and then clinical trials.

The leap from idea to implementation, however, is exactly what leaders do all the time in reforming their organizations. Reporting lines are changed, employees are reassigned, and responsibilities are shifted, all based on an idea that has not been lab-tested under realistic conditions. This is risky too, and often leads to failure. According to a McKinsey survey, 80 percent of reorganizations do not yield their intended value, and some even are damaging. This troubling reality led CNA’s analysts to create StaffLab™, a newly introduced service that brings the process of lab testing to organizational reform.

For years, our team has produced data-driven insights that help military leaders improve existing organizations and challenges. Our analyses provide pointers into areas of friction, broken processes, overlapping responsibilities, and other challenges to be addressed in a redesign. Our extensive work in this area has allowed us to identify common pathologies of military organizations. We frequently also propose redesign options to rectify the challenges we identify or to meet a new organizational goal. But this organizational design work was mostly based in theory, because how can you analyze data for an organization that does not yet exist?

This is the question that was posed to us by a study sponsor several years ago. The leadership of a joint command wanted to create a new subordinate organization. Critical to its creation was a realistic idea of how many people, of what type and within what structure would be needed to support the mission. They needed to be aware in advance of any ways in which the design was fragile. CNA devised an "organizational troop-to-task" wargame to stress test the hypothetical organization and produce quantitative data on how personnel were employed, and in what patterns, in responding to a variety of realistic scenarios. Our analysts used these quantitative data to calculate employed capacity and explore the relational networks resulting from shared tasking, which we combined with our understanding of military organizational dynamics. Those results ultimately fed into the structure and manning of the proposed organization.

Wargames are remarkably instructive on the ways humans interact and make decisions. Because organizations are fundamentally driven by human interactions and decision-making, they are ideal for examination via the wargaming tool. In fact, games may be more useful for testing organizations than are models and simulations, which make numerous assumptions about how humans will respond to particular circumstances.

Since that first effort, we have continued to refine and expand our approach to exploring and testing new organizations before they are created. We are starting to synthesize quantitative and qualitative trends in how the organizations tested in our games function to drive their design. We are also involving our sponsors more deeply in identifying their target performance goals with modern workshopping techniques. All of this we are now pleased to offer as an integrated laboratory for in vitro organization testing — that critical missing link between theory and implementation. With CNA's StaffLab, we can now help leaders gain confidence that the tough decisions they are making about organizational redesigns are also smart ones.

Email to learn more about StaffLab.

Margaux Hoar directs the Organizations, Roles, and Missions research program at CNA.