Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 3 sessions / week, 1.5 hours / session

Course Description

There was a time when it was thought that scholars were close to knowing everything we needed to know about how to design and run the optimal organization. Bureaucracy was best. It seemed that only the details remained to be worked out: what was the ideal mix of salary and commission; how many employees should there be for each manager; how bright should the lights be in the workplace, and so on.

This smug complacency was shattered thirty years ago by a series of studies showing that there is, in fact, no one best way to organize. Different environments place differing requirements on organizations. An organization designed to thrive in a stable, well-understood environment, for example, cannot be expected to do as well in conditions of uncertainty and rapid change. A theory of relativity for organizational behavior was needed, and contingency theory was born. Scholars began to search for the two or three key elements of the environment that determined which type of organization was most appropriate in a given setting.

In the next two decades, they found not two or three but two or three thousand such contingencies. It has become increasingly clear that the best way to organize in a particular situation depends on so many factors – elements of strategy, industry, market, history, culture, people, technology – that we will never find a recipe for the ideal organization and there will never be a grand unified theory of organizational behavior. It is now clear that building and sustaining quality organizations will always require the analytical skills, judgment, intuition, and especially the creativity of human leaders and managers.

This course is designed to help you develop these skills, build your understanding of how organizations behave and change, and enhance your capacity to act in organizations. Some materials closely linked to this course have been introduced (albeit swiftly) in the Sloan Orientation and have emphasized interpersonal relations and team processes. Much of the material in Communications class (15.280) will also be quite relevant to what we study in this course. This class, however, will focus on larger scale levels of analysis: organizational structure and design, power and politics, culture and change.

Course Summary

The ability to act with skill and creativity in organizations begins with the development of multiple perspectives on organizations. As you are no doubt aware, humans habitually settle into fixed perspectives, unchallenged mental models of how the world works, unconscious filters of what we pay attention to and what we ignore. These habits offer powerful economies of thought: without them, the simplest task of picking a face out in a crowd or listening to the radio while driving would be impossible. But they impose costs as well. They lock us into a single view of the world that may not be best, that is surely incomplete, that will become outdated, and that is resistant to change. Creativity involves trading off economy of thought for innovation of thought. It requires the discipline of interpreting what we see and hear in organizations from multiple standpoints.

As a starting point, this course is organized around three different perspectives on organizations: the strategic design perspective, the political perspective, and the cultural perspective. Each of them offers a different angle on what an organization is, and each offers different tools for action.

Accordingly, we will probe some of the social and psychological processes that make it likely that managers will fall into unchallenged patterns of action and thought. We will then turn to a more in-depth treatment of the strategic design, and political and cultural perspectives on organization. While leading and managing others always presents challenges, our goal in this course is to use the three perspectives to develop a more complete understanding of these challenges, so as to enable organizational participants to best address these challenges. In order to make the material tangible, we require that students go out into the world and study a real organization as a "live" case study. Thus, a major requirement for this course is a team project study of an organization that is attempting a change initiative (more on this later).

As this syllabus displays, the course combines conceptual and experiential approaches. It involves exercises, case studies, lectures, videos, and group work.

Coursework and Grading


The expectations of you are relatively simple: arrive punctually to class, be well prepared, and participate actively. There are several ways in which the materials in this course help you to do this:

  • Short Introductions: These have been provided for each session in the course outline to give you some background on the materials to be covered. You should read these first.
  • Study Questions: These are there to guide you through the case material, helping you to focus on what's important.
  • Readings: Most sessions have accompanying readings, which you are expected to complete. All class assignments and readings are in the 15.311 course packet available at the campus copy center.

Participation (30%)

The character of the course naturally lends itself to active exchange among participants. Participation is encouraged and recognized in several ways. Your grade for participation in the course will be affected by absences. If you must miss a class, please let your instructor know beforehand. To recognize those whose comments and questions benefit us all, a part of the participation grade is based on contributions made in class. Both quantity and quality are relevant and although consistent contribution is ideal, a few points of genuine insight may go a long way. The point of participation is that sharing perceptions and ideas with others is crucial for learning and for understanding how the diverse opinions that you are likely to encounter in an organization are articulated and debated. You will find yourself presenting and testing new ideas that are not wholly formulated and assisting others to shape their ideas as well. You should be prepared to take some risks and be supportive of the efforts of others.

Team Project (50%)

Your team will work together on several assignments and exercises in 15.311. The most significant of these is that each team is required to produce a team project for the semester. This project will involve students going into the field and studying an organizational change initiative.

For details about the team project, see the projects page.

Individual Case Write-Up (20%)

Students will be required to write a 3-5 page analysis of a short case study. This will be an individual task and will require the strategic design, political and cultural analysis of an organizational change effort as well as a brief integrative action plan to remedy efforts that may have gone astray. The case will be distributed in Session 10 (October 30), and is due in Session 12 (November 6).

Grading Summary

Participation 30%  
Team Paper 50% Due in 15.280 Session 12 (December 9)
Case Write-Up 20% Given out Session 10 (October 30), Due Session 12 (December 6)


Special Sessions

We have designed this course to work in conjunction with 15.280 Communications (see the schedule). Thus, the classes will share certain assignments. Some of our required sessions will be offered jointly with the Career Development Office (in particular, Sessions 11 and 15 on Oct. 31 and Nov. 21). In addition, Prof. Roberto Fernandez and the Career Development Office will be offering an optional session on Hiring on Sept. 12.


This class is being taught jointly by four faculty from the Organizational Studies Group. Classroom teachers will be Prof. Paul Carlile (Cohort E), Prof. Roberto Fernandez (Cohorts A, C and F), and Prof. John Van Maanen (Cohorts B and D). In addition, Prof. John Carroll will help guide many of the team projects. (Precise assignments of teams to faculty members will be announced on Team Day, Sept. 26).