Reorgs: choose wisely

Standard

We trained hard … but it seemed that every time we were beginning to form up into teams we would be reorganized. I was to learn later in life that we tend to meet any new situation by reorganizing; and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency, and demoralization.
- Charlton Ogburn, “Merrill’s Marauders”, Harpers Magazine, January 1957

Having been through a few reorgs, I can tell you that two requirements should usually be met:

  1. The change must be good for the org and mission
  2. The change should be good for the individuals involved

You should strive for both 1 and 2, exhausting all options, but sometimes you must choose just 1.

If you find yourself stuck choosing 1 over 2, it almost always results in people leaving. It causes boredom or animosity — both spell doom for an employee or team’s morale. Just be prepared to lose people.

I believe something is horribly wrong if you are in a position where 1 supersedes 2 and you have no better alternative than to lose valuable people — but it may not be worth over-generalizing. Just think about it.

BRAINS and the art of decision making

I went through a birthing class with my wife prior to having our first kid. They introduced a framework for making decisions that is universally applicable and works well with reorgs. It’s called BRAINS:

  • Benefits: What are the benefits of the reorg — for both the mission and the people involved? What is your vision?
  • Risks: What do you stand to lose by going through with it? Will you lose people? Will it slow your teams down initially? What are the costs if it doesn’t work out?
  • Alternatives: Is it not an org issue? What if you hired a key person to fix the issue, changed your process or reset priorities? What are other ways to address your concerns?
  • Intuition: Does it feel right? Would it feel right to the team? Are you finding it hard to defend it because it seems so counter-intuitive? Typically if things do not feel right, something is wrong. Intuition is usually overlooked with these types of things but it’s a powerful motivator for the org and has direct ties to morale. Pay attention to this and listen to what people are telling you.
  • Nothing: What happens if you do nothing? Sometimes letting things play out resolves problems. Time works miracles if you can afford it — but sometimes you can’t. That said, understanding the relative cost of doing nothing is an important yardstick when rationalizing change.
  • Smile: Smile because you made a decision. When all is said and done, if you can support your decision and commit to it, be happy you made one. Move forward and be positive — it’ll help things work out and get folks to come along with you.

The reorg sanity test

There are some questions you should be able to answer before bestowing a reorg onto your organization. So in the spirit of the Rands test, follow these questions and see how many points you end up with:

Is the reorg easy to defend? (+1)
Like relationships, if things are rocky early on, something is off. Most often promotions, reorgs and other changes feel right. Intuition goes a long way here and if the first general reaction people have is “huh? what?” that’s not a good sign. You’re looking for the nod here — when you explain it to someone it should be self-evident and make sense. If it isn’t, and don’t kid yourself, then no points for you.
Did you discuss the reorg with your team? (+1)
The idea that someone can draft a master plan, drop it on a group of brilliant people and tell them to just do it is draconian. In software, solutions built from the ground-up have galvanized buy-in as a built-in feature; this applies to organizations as well. If you’re making decisions without input from the org you are forgoing a valuable resource and missing opportunities to a) evolve your solution into something better b) let the org be heard and help them own the solution. If you shared your plans early and got feedback on them before making a decision, give yourself a point.
Did they like the idea? (+1)
First impressions are hard to change. When you shared your plan or decisions (whatever stage you were at) did your team like the idea? Were they uncomfortable? Was there an awkward silence after you explained the plan? Or were they happy about the change and reinforce it? If they liked it, give yourself a point.
Did your team come up with the idea? (+1) Did upper management? (-1)
If you are a progressive leader, your team may have even come up with the idea in the first place. Asking the right questions can lead to solutions. If your team actually came up with the new reorg plan, give yourself a big fat point. Good on you. If this is an idea from upper management and has never involved anybody from your team below a certain rank, subtract a point — you are creating issues with buy-in down the road.
Did you discuss the reorg with other parts of the company? (+1)
This is a transparency check. Did you make the overall decision without dependent teams knowing about it? If you shared the plan and did a dry run to see other groups’ reactions, give yourself a point. If you hatched your plan in private and the first time folks saw it was via a) being told it was happening via an email b) rumors — then no points for you.

If you scored 3 or less, you’re playing with matches. Some combination of top-down leadership and lack of transparency leads to issues with buy-in. It means your reorg, even if applied, will not stand the test of time and erodes trust in your leadership. It could make everything harder for you.

The golden circle

I mentioned that doing what’s right for the people involved is important. I think it’s arguable that rule 1 and rule 2 must always be met — but I know in practice that people can’t always just do whatever they want and there is usually a bottom line to uphold.

Some of this all comes back to what kind of leader you want to be. In relation with Simon Sinek’s thoughts on the golden circle, I’ve always striven to be the type of leader who leads with why, guides people to how and empowers people to discover the what.

A conventional approach is to start with what you want, tell people how you want them organized and explain why when the plan is shared.

I think a better approach is to help your team understand why changes are needed, help them find a solution for how they want to be structured and ultimately they will arrive at the correct what — the right org to match the challenges they face.

Leading with the why is inclusive and gets you better buy-in long-term. This means less of a cliff when the initial proposal is thrown out there. It makes transition easier but can get hung up on finding 100% consensus. Remember that even if you lead this way, you still need to make a call and push forward.

If all else fails, do your best to listen to your team and what they are telling you before and after you discuss the problems they face. The answer to how your organization should be formed lies within your team as much as it lies within you.

Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself.
- Confucius