For many years a large part of my work was restructuring business, downsizing organisations and disestablishing roles. All lovely change jargon to make ‘redundant’ sound less harsh. I worked with some organisations many times and my arrival at the office reception immediately raised concerns and thoughts of ‘hear we go again’ amongst staff who knew me. Even when I was there to do the many other things I am called for I was often referred to as ‘the grim reaper’ in some organisations.
These days I’m called on less often to guide an organisation through such changes because everyone thinks they can handle it themselves. Lawyers will often be called upon and many HR practitioners will have ‘restructuring’ on their Cv. But organisations handling structure change themselves was often why I was called upon in the first place (when they got themselves in a tangle) and there is still a case for outside support I believe, that many organisations are missing.
Above the politics
The external change agent can give pure and clean guidance without affecting their next pay rise or performance review. Internal HR advisors can be sidelined by powerful GM’s/CEOs that think they know what to do and/or know what they want and don’t want to consider alternatives. They can become so much a part of the internal political scene that they know they can’t raise certain topics with the CEO/VP/GM and if they do the guidance can be couched so carefully that the message is lost. As an external change agent advice can be given, risks raised and the unmentionable mentioned because they are outside the performance review process.
They care about your reputation not the numbers
A good change agent isn’t just interested in how many roles are to be changed or removed. For them it’s not a numbers game or a target to focus their attention on. A good change agent isn’t really bothered about the law because they know the law is a minimum standard designed to catch the negligent or uninterested. A good change agent is neither.
A good change agent is focused on how the change happens because they know that the way the process is run, and the approach taken has a lasting effect on morale, reputation, employer brand and culture to say the least. A lawyer will advise you on the law but not on how people will feel. They may even advise you that ‘if it went to court you would win’. These days, less and less time is taken on consulting because nobody thinks they really need to go that far. A good change agent knows that the way you treat those that go tells everyone else how you really are as a company, and that’s why a good restructure is never done to the legal minimum but to the reputational maximum.
Better than a training course
I’ve always been a great advocate of training managers in how to lead people through the emotional side of change, but theory is one thing and reality is another. A good change agent shouldn’t do the job for you (like a George Clooney clone) but they will be able to mentor your managers through each state of the process, transferring knowledge and upping skills in a way that HR can’t (they have 200 other projects going on) or the lawyer can’t (they advise on law not on what to do when someone bursts into tears).
Nothing through the cracks
It may seem like an unnecessary extra pair of hands but internal staff have so much more going on than just the structure change that things get missed. Change is like juggling an extra ball when you are just managing to handle the 3 you had. So an extra pair of hands will help make sure that nothing about the change is missed as they only have to focus on that. A good change agent can often hear things that the managers don’t because they can go places, chat and listen (now I’m not saying managers can’t do this, but so many move from one meeting to the other that it is nigh on impossible to sit them down at their desk never mind walk the floor). More importantly they know what they are listening for. The emotional signals of someone who doesn’t want to let on that a whole load of their life wasn’t good and now you’ve added to it are part of a change agents radar.
So don’t fear the reaper, they are there to help your organisation come out of change in better shape than you went in.
I’ve always said to my clients that ‘how you treat those that you ask to leave, sets the tone for those that remain’ so you can see that I am an advocate of smart empathetic practices when it comes to making people redundant. But I recently realised that I’d never actually written about how to do it or not to do it.
Leave me in Limbo
If you are going to make someone redundant don’t make it drag on. Yes, you need to consult and yes if you do that with the right intent you might change your mind, but the day you notify someone that their ‘role is possibly going under a proposed restructure’ then you should know the implications of the restructure you have in mind. After all, you are management and hold all the cards. So leaving it weeks and weeks before you tell people isn’t just lacking in empathy its doesn’t show you or your organisation as being in control (would you want to follow someone who just couldn’t decide and left you in Limbo?).
‘The pick up your box’ text
At the other end of the spectrum we have the joy of technology. Its time saving, you can pre-prepare and time things. Its wonderful isn’t it! Until you use it to make someone redundant. All thats says to the receiver is ‘that you didn’t have the guts to look me in the eye and do it’. Want that kind of reputation? Empathy Shampathy!
Can you do this before you go?
When you’ve told someone that they are surplus to requirements then they should be surplus to requirements I’m not saying that you fire everyone on the spot but if you’ve told them that their job is to be disestablished on a certain date as its surplus to requirements then don’t overload them with work right up to the last minute. Similarly don’t get to the end date, then realise you were wrong and expect them to stay. They will have had a long time to fall out of love with you by then.
Form a line here
I’ve seen many days where one person after another get told whether they have a job or not. They are not fun for anyone, but if you are restructuring then thats what you’ve got to do. What you can do is get through those who you are letting go as quickly as you can in the process. Don’t see 20 people to tell them that they have a job and make the last person wait till 4pm to know that they are surplus to requirements. But do see them one by one. Don’t form two groups in two rooms, walk in and tell one half that they are all going so that it is done quickly. (see texting, looking people in the eye and empathy above).
I know you might feel like a drink after you’ve been through a long day, but don’t grab a few buddies from the office and go to the local bar to celebrate the end of the downsizing. People will see you and might think you are heartless and not the caring soul that you are.
Don’t delegate it
No, it’s not HR’s job. You are the boss, you do it.
Making someone redundant can be the worst day in their life. Treat them with respect, dignity and empathy and do what needs done in a way that shows that you know they are human, with lives and mortgages too. That way the people that remain may still want to work with you.
Clarity. It’s one of the most critical words in an organisation; clarity. But it’s often missing. Role clarity, clarity of leadership, clarity of purpose, clarity of objectives, outcomes, expectations, boundaries, responsibilities, accountabilities, measures, consequences. Many organizations have people working away within one, or many of these missing. They do what they think they need to, or should do, or only what they’ve been asked to do. But somehow there is a performance gap, something meaning that the results aren’t quite there. And often its lack of clarity.
And then there are teams without clarity, because they’ve been thrown together as part of the structure. They have team meetings and they are dissatisfied by them or find them a waste of time. ‘What are we doing in this meeting? Why are we talking about this? It is irrelevant to what I do!’
Then they ask ‘Why are we a team?’
And the answer is often ‘there would be lots of benefits if we were’ and that is followed by reasons such as ‘sharing information’ ‘sharing best practice’ ‘cross skilling’ ‘sickness cover’, and other such answers. And the manager sits back happily and expects that to make a difference and everyone to be happy.
The problem is that those aren’t a teams purpose. They are benefits for a team that is a team and activities that make a team more effective. But they don’t solve the clarity problem. Indeed they make it worse, because all people hear in the answers are ‘you didn’t know what to do with us and put us all in one room’ and ‘if you don’t really know, then what hope is there for the rest of us’.
Everyone knows that ‘team’ means you are dependent on each other, that you need each other to do your job and that in doing your job you are part of the success of the whole. If it doesn’t look like a team, feel like a team, then its probably not a team.
So the crime of sudo-team is committed. Activities are created to make us think we are what we know what we aren’t. Meetings waste time. Measures don’t reflect reality.
Instead of saying, ‘we aren’t a team as such, we are a group of individuals with similar skills /roles/activities for this organisation so it makes sense we live together and have the same manager to look after us.’ ‘So given that we don’t depend on each other day by day, can we get any benefit by being under the same roof?’
And suddenly its clear. We aren’t expected to be a team, there is a reason why my goals and objectives are mine and not shared, there is a reason why we have the same manager. So if that’s the case, well it would make things easier if we all got some of the same info about what is going on, so that’s better done in one meeting to be efficient. And maybe we can help each other solve problems, so how about we have a rule that anyone can call for a ‘problem-solve session’, and whilst we work on different things we use the same piece of software/process/base skills (tick as appropriate) so some way of sharing best practice may benefit all of us.
Hang on you say, that’s the same things that the manager gave when asked ‘why are we a team’, so what’s the difference? The difference is firstly that there is now no expectation of shared results and interdependency so the sham of being a real team is over. Secondly the team is now looking for benefits in being together as opposed to being told by their manager. As a result the group working practices can now be designed fit for purpose by a willing cadre e.g. Meetings get focused on what we all need to know, not what one of us needs to know. And you can’t discount the benefit of people wanting to be engaged in something because they see a benefit in it.
And most of all, what we are there for is now clear, with how and when we work together being based on that clarity.
People are happier in a crime free team.
Restructuring is a phrase that is common around the business world. If you’ve not been involved in one as a leader or employee you are very unusual.
Despite the amount of restructuring that takes place (or maybe because of it) very few deliver any real and lasting change. Indeed many just cut the wage bill, and some are done purely for that reason. But that always seems a very limited reason to change your structure.
Indeed if you are running your business well you should always have the most effective number of people engaged in the most effective process for delivering your business results. And those people should be grouped together in work units that enable them to best deliver the task that they are there for. That grouping of work units is effectively your structure.
If you look at it that way, structure should fall out of a process that groups people together to make it easy to do their job when their job requires them to engage with other people.
But if that was the case, why do many workplace problems occur because people from one work unit have to interact with people from another work unit. Indeed many restructures are done to manage these issues of interaction. But again, most don’t succeed because the issues are with the interacting people and not with the structure. Because structure is not real. It’s an imaginary construct designed by managers to create order where order would not exist otherwise. It’s there to prevent chaos, remove inefficiencies and speed up process. But most don’t do that.
Because it’s imaginary. So it can’t do anything.
So why are so many $’s spent on changing something that is unlikely to do anything but change the wage bill for a short time (and many wage bills gradually creep back up after a restructure as people are brought back to do things that still need done and were forgotten about until they were missed). The answer might lie in looking at the organisation if we had no structure.
I’ve always wondered what would happen if that was the case. if organisations had no structure imposed and people were given a very clear job description, defined and measurable outcomes and clear boundaries (you can’t spend any money, but you can solicit the support and know-how of anyone else in the organisation to deliver what you’ve been asked to deliver). Would it work? If you had 100% of your employees fully skilled in delivering what they had been asked to do, self starting, with self-discipline, built in risk sensitivity, attitudes that were positively aligned to the environment (so unlikely to mess up others work to advance themselves, un-selfish with their skills and knowledge etc) and a heep of other attributes. Then you might succeed in delivering without any structure whatsoever.
But people aren’t like that in the main, so we need the out in place supervision to make sure that people stay on the path we need them to, to clarify things and answer questions etc. We need quality checkers to keep an eye out for those places where human imperfection comes to play . We need HR people to help us employ people, pay them and help in disciplinary cases. And the list goes on.
So we need structure. But I wonder if we need all the structure we sometimes put in place or have we got used to putting in structures that we don’t think about some of them any more.
Look at some job descriptions for managers and you will find things in there that are to justify position or salary as opposed to a real need to get the best from those who report to them (the prime role of a manager). Structures are often defined based on how many direct reports a manger can manage and yet the manager spends very little of their time managing those people. Leadership posts are created that are still expected to deliver specialist activities and specialists are given people to manage to justify paying a leadership salary. People are put in groups and told they are a team but they have no interaction with each other and the manager creates false team activities to justify the word team. People are aligned in technical skills groupings yet 90% of their time is spent with people in other units. People with specialist skills are embedded in units to support those people and then find that their work is being dictated by a manager sitting outside of the unit. People are pulled together under one GM because they are all roughly engaged in the same thing and then layers of managers managing layers are put in place over the top of them. And many more poor decisions are made because the wrong problem was trying to be solved.
So the next time you draw a structure out why not ask yourself ‘will this enable people to do their job easier by aligning people that are interconnected in our processes? Then test it for unnecessary hierarchies, role and salary justifications, unclear groupings or changes just to deal with problem interactions.
Or maybe ask yourself, ‘how would people align if we didn’t have a structure?’and then work backwards from that.
‘Every organisation around the world is dependent on the talent that chooses to join it’
I said that to someone recently and they blinked and paused before we could continue. The reason was that their mindset was one of recruiting talent that met their needs and ‘letting it go’ when it didn’t. This mindset is prevalent around the world despite all the good words that come out in company values statements (I wish I had a $ for every ‘People are our biggest asset’)
A lot of time is spent on recruiting people to do specific roles and trying to match people to jobs that need done. People are selected and promoted base on many different criteria as each company tried out its own methodology to match person to post. We try and pin down the right person to the right role as a set of prioritised facts.
Yet companies change frequently, roles shift and move with the changes in the business environment. Structures change with new leaders and the demands on managers vary by every change in objectives. Ask any change agent and they will tell you that many of the people ‘restructured’ out of a business were once seen as performers or were recruited as ‘top talent’ or even head-hunted for a role.
They still have the skills and experiences that they came with (and should have added more). They still know what they did when you rated them. They can still do what you asked them to do when they arrived. So what has changed?
It’s a truism that we hire on skills and fire on attitude, but what is widely known but rarely talked about is that attitudes can be moulded by the company and the leader someone works for. Bright eyed talent with passion and enthusiasm can leave as jaundiced and jaded run of the mill employees. Sometimes it can be changes in their life outside of work but often it is the organisational environment that does it.
While talent is seen as an something that is bought and used and then thrown away, or as an asset just like those on your balance sheets (and remember you depreciate those) then there will always be ‘churn’ and ‘turnover’ within your business.
Look at it this way. You don’t need an engagement survey to know the level of commitment in your important relationships do you? You don’t need told that you need to invest in them either?
Perhaps considering your ‘talent’ as people that chose you and your business as much as you chose them would lead to a mindset of a mutually beneficial relationship. It may change who you recruit in the first place and why you recruit them (want to live with someone you fall out with all the time?) And a shift to that paradigm might change everything in your organisation quicker than any restructuring.
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