Reorganizations: Don’t Just Shake up the Bird Cage

I’ve heard some employees call frequent, questionable reorganizations “shaking up the bird cage”. You get a lot of noisy chaos and ruffled feathers flying, and at the end of the say, the same bunch would just be sitting on different perches, albeit a little dizzy from all of the cage rattling. Nothing else seems to change.

That kind of a cynical reaction is often the result of an organizational design process that started and ended with an organization chart. It’s also a result of a lack of communication and change leadership. People don’t understand the rationale, so they fill in the blanks with cynicism and skepticism. Unfortunately, it’s often justified.

I’ve been involved in enough of these – as a manager, outside advisor, and recipient – to have learned a few lessons. 

Here are some tips that I hope will help the next time you’re thinking of re-drawing that org chart:

Why Reorganize?

Most managers don’t decide to reorganize on a whim – it just seems that way, usually because of a poor design or lack of communication.

The typical reasons a manager decides it’s time to reorganize are:

1. A key person has left, leaving a void and an opportunity to question the existing structure. Like it or not, management org charts are usually built around individuals, not “positions”. When a key individual departs, the rationale for the position often leaves with them.

2. There are problems (inefficiency, talent mis-matches, overlapping or underlapping roles, or other operational issues). Work is not getting done, and/or it’s not being done well.

3. It’s required in order to seize a new opportunity (new market, product, service, etc…). Your current structure just wasn’t designed to support your new business objectives.

While these are all good reasons, it’s important to consider reorganizing as just one possible alternative. There are often lots of less disruptive ways to achieve the same objectives.

Who should be involved?

This one’s always been tricky. If it’s just the manager, there’s a missed opportunity for critical input and buy-in. If it’s the entire management team or more, it can be too slow and natural self-serving interests get in the way of doing what’s best for the business.

The best choice is usually something in-between, the manager and a small team of trusted advisers. They are usually the individuals who have enough confidence in their future with the new organization to be able to put their own interests aside.

The “process”

I’m sure there are ALL kinds of ways to go about this. I’ve pulled all-nighters in rooms with dozens of flipcharts and post-it notes and take-out food containers, and it’s never come close to what I’ve learned in the books and courses.

Believe me, there is no perfect science to how to do it, but here’s a few things that seem to work:

1. Start with a strategy.
It’s critical to know where the organization or team is going – what’s important, what’s not, what are the goals, etc…. Yes, this sounds pretty basic, but it’s an often overlooked step. Don’t have a strategy? Then maybe it’s time to create one before you start messing with the org chart. Structure should always follow strategy.

2. Develop your criteria.
List the problems you are trying to solve and/or opportunities. Then weight (H,M,L) each one. This becomes the criteria that you’ll use to evaluate design alternatives and to measure your success.

3. Develop and evaluate design alternatives.
I’ve seen a lot of teams fall in love with one idea and then spend all of their time trying to justify it or make it perfect. Instead, try to come up with multiple alternatives (3-4), and then rank those against your criteria. The reality is none of the options will ever be perfect. Take the best one, and then come up with action plans to mitigate the risks.

This is also a good time to discuss other alternatives that DON’T involve reorganizing. Sometimes, the best change is no change.

4. Test the final design with scenarios.
Spend time testing the design by discussing how various business processes would work within the new structure. These “what if” discussions help fine tune the structure and clarify roles.

Change Leadership

Even the most perfect design could fail to meet your objectives – or take a lot longer – if there’s no change plan. At the risk of again oversimplifying a very complex topic, there are two critical things to pay attention to: communication and involvement.

Communication needs to be much more than one-way announcements about the change. Stakeholders, including employees, will be more likely to get on board if you not only share the “what” and “why”, but tell them about the alternatives you didn’t consider and why you didn’t. Let them know you realize there is no one perfect choice – acknowledge the potential disadvantages of the choice you made – and share your plans to address those areas. This kind of candor and authenticity is way better than trying to “sell” your change as the perfect solution. When it comes to organization structure, there is no perfect design. Every design has its inherent flaws – it’s a matter of picking the lesser of evils. If you treat people like intelligent adults, you’ll get the same amount of respect and support in return.

Don’t expect people to understand it or buy into it right away – chance are you didn’t either (remember “the marathon effect”).

More importantly, ask for their help in making it work. This is where involvement comes into play. People will support what they help create. While they may not have had an opportunity to create the new organizational structure, they can play a huge part of implementing the structure. It’s yet another opportunity to get valuable input in order to further fine-tune the structure.

How about you? We’ve all been through re-orgs before – what have you seen that has worked well, and what have you seen that has not worked so well?