There isn’t a work conversation I have had recently with friends, peers, or former teammates across the industry that does not include a discussion of the higher than normal attrition rate companies are seeing. Anecdotally, every single friend of mine that works in tech and is able to change their job has either made a change or is looking. This includes my wife and I both making a job change after close to 10 and 8 years at the same company, respectively.
There are plenty of reasons why but if you’re in an organization that’s not transforming right now, it’s a good time to ask why. This accelerating industry-wide transformation is impacting leaders moving from one organization to the other. Leaders across the industry are also making the move to new roles. With new leaders come new ways of operating and in some cases, a new organizational structure.
Transformation, however, generally brings instability. One of the most frustrating experiences teams face is continued change of the organizational structure itself. Re-orgs are inevitable as an organization transforms and as new leaders take their new role. The most frustrating part of a re-org is generally a lack of clarity on the what, the why, and the how. Most teams are willing to deal with change if they understand it, understand how they’re going to navigate it, and understand their role in it. Re-orgs don’t have to be as painful as they usually are if we recognize a few things about how to plan for them.
This post is aimed at the leader actually making the organizational change. However, it’s likely useful for anyone who’s participating in these discussions or is impacted by the organizational change as well.
The perfect org
Every re-org is in a search for a more perfect org yet it’s called a re-org for a reason. There is no perfect org. It’s true, however, that there is probably a really good org structure for this team and time.
Understanding that a re-org is simply a representation of the work and people you’re optimizing for is freeing. It’s not about getting this right, it’s about enabling the organization to operate in the most efficient way to achieve what we’re currently optimizing for.
The reason this is important to realize is that it frees you from searching for the long lasting organization that will work well for a longer time and focusing more on the building an organization that will help you achieve the goals you’re optimizing this team at this time to achieve.
In order to get a sense of where you need to go, or if a re-org is even necessary, a few questions to consider as pre-work:
- What is the current organization optimized for? Are these the right goals?
- What process, people, or product issues is this organization facing?
- How much of that are organizational structure issues, culture issues, or people issues?
- Is the re-org in consideration to solve people instead of structural issues?
Set clear principles
Now that a leader has context on the issues facing the organization and a clear understanding of the goals they want to optimize for, it’s important to set clear principles that will govern this current re-org if deemed necessary.
Principles are there to help guide us through tough questions. They need to be clear, few, and long lasting. Although multiple different configurations could meet these set of principles, the outcome should definitely be guided by them.
Principles are also important to set standards for the way a leader is going to go about this re-org before tough questions arise. It’s a way to align the team in a clear direction of what matters before self-motivations get in the way for the leadership themselves and for their team members.
The principles that will guide a specific re-org could look different but here are a few that helped guide me in a recent re-org:
- Customer, business, team, self. In that order.
- Everyone on the team will land in a place where they can contribute and grow.
- Optimize for cloud experiences and cloud transformation in every decision we make.
- Minimize change of people’s managers when possible.
This isn’t necessarily a complete list but it is a good example of principles that helped guide tough discussions. For example, when a discussion arises on a leader not liking the specific role they ended up landing in, the questions to discuss with them are:
- Could you draft a response or a proposal for why this isn’t a good change starting with the impact on customers, the business, the team, and then your own role?
- How does this role not allow you to contribute and in what ways does it not allow you to grow?
Principles help us all navigate situations together in ways that enable us to hold ourselves accountable not to what we like or dislike but to what’s beneficial for the goals we’ve set to achieve.
In many ways, these principles aren’t supposed to make decisions easy. Instead, they’re supposed to make decisions clear.
These principles should also guide the leaders themselves in making decisions in ways that don’t optimize for their own liking. It’s critical to encourage the organization to challenge you, as a leader, on these principles. The rest of the organization now has a way to point out your blind spots to you, including times when you incidentally optimize for your own role or comfort, without the fear of offending you.
Start with circles and squares, not people’s names
You already know too much. A new leader to an org, for example, receives a ton of feedback and asks within their first 30 days in their role. Knowing enough is good, but it is also daunting. Are they going to really move a leader into a new role to benefit the customer if they know for a fact that this leader will be upset and might leave? Is that the most important consideration or just the most obvious one?
Recognize that you know too much and start from an empty sheet of “circles and squares”. Start from the way you would build an organization to solve the problems you’re trying to solve by putting roles, not names, in places where you need them.
Resist the temptation of putting “David” in that role or “Val” in that specific team. They might end up there anyway but starting with roles enables you to think through your organization without the unconscious biases that govern your day to day.
Starting with roles also enables you to discover gaps in ways that you might not be able to otherwise. Are there roles that this organization doesn’t even have or roles that this org has but you don't need.
This isn’t a pie in the sky thinking workshop. Don’t simply ignore reality. Be grounded in the realities of your budget, your team, and your company. However, don’t make the new re-org a simply incremental improvement over the existing one, unless that’s truly what the team needs.
This is the step I see most leaders struggle with. Many already have an idea of what’s most comfortable for them. Others end up simply moving the chairs within their org. It doesn’t mean the resulting outcome is bad, however, it could truly be a lost opportunity or worse, a disruptive change but with little improvement.
Don’t make people happy, create an environment where they can be
You can’t make everyone happy. By definition, re-orgs bring change. If you’re successful, that change will generally be uncomfortable for some. Although it’s important to manage how the change is managed and communicated, and we’ll get to that in a minute, it’s also important that you’re optimizing the whole environment, not for certain individuals.
This is somewhat counterintuitive because it takes you away from what an org is for, the interactions of the people in it. However, trying to optimize for individuals and their happiness will most certainly result in an org where almost everyone is unhappy.
Understanding that you cannot actually control the happiness of others is freeing. It helps you focus on how you create an environment where every single member of your team could be happy. Their happiness is a top priority but it comes through the environment you build for them not following their direct asks, necessarily. It’s very similar to designing for users. It’s not about asking them what they want or need, it’s about understanding the needs of the ecosystem, their direct needs, and balancing those two.
Working from clear principles shared and communicated also helps. It helps everyone on the team feel like they understand the reasons behind the decisions and can help make it easier for them to either agree or disagree but commit nonetheless.
Communicate, communicate, communicate
Every single member of the team should have a clear understanding of the principles this re-org has been done with, the why behind it, and what are we as a team supposed to achieve from it.
Write a narrative outlining those questions, your role-based (not name-based) organizational structure and seek dissent. Engage the organization in a way to provide feedback. There is no better way to understand a decision and bring people on the journey with it than to offer the team a chance to challenge it.
Few important rules to share with your team:
- You’re challenging the outcome, not the principles.
- You’re challenging or providing feedback based on these principles.
- This isn’t a democracy. Although feedback will be taken into account, it’s not necessarily that every piece of feedback will be implemented or that every change requested will happen.
This narrative, including changes, will be an excellent way to communicate the change.
In communicating the change, a leader must not promise stability. Many leaders make the mistake of promising this as the re-org. No others will be coming. This is not a promise a leader can keep. The goal should be to promise stability with principles and goals as the basis. Like anything, the organization will learn and optimize. Is moving a person from one team to the other as goals are clarified another re-org or a simple optimization? Can a leader promise that won’t happen in a month, two, or three?
A leader must not assume that a single announcement or communication channel is enough. Continue to seek feedback across the organization. From “AMA” sessions, to all hands, to anonymous feedback links. Even if the reasons were clear and the principles were clarified, the organization learns a ton after a re-org has been implemented. You have to keep your ear to the ground in understanding the impact on the ground and continuing to communicate the why reminding the organization of the reasons behind the structure.
Re-orgs need time
Re-orgs are quite expensive. Most teams that go through them aren’t always bothered by the fact that they are happening but more of the fact that they don’t understand why. A leader needs to continue to measure against the principles and goals and to optimize as necessary. Give the re-org time to result in the change needed but do not be complacent in a structure that isn’t driving the optimization the team needs.
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