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.
When you are setting out your change communication strategy, what are you trying to achieve? Are you just there to keep people up to date with the timeline of the project? Are you setting out to market all the good things that your change will bring? Are you planning to deal with all the people issues and manage all the ‘what’s happening to me?’ questions that come with change?
Hopefully the answer is all three, but I often see comms that is only about one or two at best. Sometimes it’s because people don’t see the value in a three part comms strategy, but sometimes it’s old fashioned turf wars at play. Whatever the reason, if your change comms is not a cohesive mix of all three then you are missing an opportunity at best an potentially putting your change at risk at worst.
Progressing the Timeline
It’s a change programme so no doubt you’ve told people that something is going to change. In days gone past that was it, but most of us know that the most basic element of change is that people want to know what’s happening. Without knowing what’s happening they can’t identify with the change. If they can’t identify they won’t buy in. So the most basic change comms takes us through the change programme as and when it happens, which is my circus analogy. The Comms tells us that ‘the circus is coming’ to ‘the circus is here’ with updates in between telling us about the different acts as they arrive. This is a necessary part of any change communication strategy, but on its own it’s limited. It’s limited by lack of meaning to the individual who wants to know what the circus means to them and why they should care about it, what acts matter from their perspective and which ones will affect their role.
Comms as a marketing aid.
When something new is being rolled out, it’s no surprise that management want to sell in the advantages of it. This is particularly true of technology changes, most of which are highly expensive, take a lot of effort, can cause disruption whilst being installed, but can look like little has changed for the user, particularly if the are replacing something existing. Often the tech teams can see lots of advantages in the new equipment or software, but face a constant barrage of requests to modify it to keep it the ‘way we do things now’. The trouble is, every change to replicate today, reduces the impact of the new. Take your laptop as an example. How many of the apps and software that come with it do you use? Is the fist thing you do when you get a new machine check that it does everything you do today? Admit it, is your email set to traditional view?
The possibilities of technology in the workplace can easily come to naught of we are not guided to use them, as are all changes of system & process whether technological or not. So marketing the possibilities is a necessary part of change communications. On its own though it has no context, as it’s a one pitch sale, ‘buy this and your life will be better’. However if the message is linked to the flow of the programme its possible that you have more than one chance at making the pitch (and we all know that people need to hear at least seventeen times before they buy)
What’s happening to me?
The third part of a comms strategy is the one that helps people understand the impact of the change on them. Every time the technology or process is marketed, people will ask ‘what does this mean for my role?’ And if there is any hint of job reductions they will ask ‘is this the bit that takes away my job?’ If you are rolling the change out but haven’t worked out which jobs are affected (as you are still trying to understand the potential of the new process/system/technology) then every time you communicate in timeline mode or marketing mode, the receivers are listening in ‘what’s happening to me mode’ and that means they aren’t taking your message on board. They can’t if they think their job is at risk.
So the perfect Comms strategy includes the human impact in the Comms flow. However people changes are often seen as the domain of HR, particularly when some aspect of the change affects roles, or reduces them. Project managers and Technologists often don’t like to touch this aspect of change in case it tarnishes the nice aspects of their nice new equipment and software. HR often prefer to manage this themselves as it’s their domain, they don’t trust the technologists or the project manager or in some cases they want control or credit. So what happens is the project markets their product and sound disconnected from the people (‘I know you are in fear of your job, but but my nice shiny gadget’) and HR come out to communicate when they are ready to tell you whether you have your job. They don’t come out alongside the project timeline and tell you how the decision us going to be made etc, they come out separate to it.
Even worse, the Comms is often not connected. The HR language is legalized to ensure the company doesn’t get taken to court, and there is a risk that they say something differently than the project has been marketing for weeks or months. Disconnected and contradictory means that every good message the project has been trying to put out is lost. In addition if people are only listening to hear if they have a role there are two states of mind with this approach. Firstly ‘I’ve still got my job so nothing has changed’ or ‘I’ve got no job so I don’t care about what is happening here’. In either case a disconnect from the project. In the end the project keeps clear of the HR issue in case it was tarnished and it ends up tarnished anyway because of that separation.
HR will have done their job in reducing numbers and changing job descriptions. The project team will have done theirs in installing new technology or process. But unfortunately for the operations team who are their customer they have a group of people who probably haven’t bought in, are often suspicious of the company and their management and in many cases don’t think anyone told them about it because of the lack of cohesion in the messaging.
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.
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