Why Managers Love to Reorganize

Jun 03, 2015

How frequently do we completely reorganize our houses? Carry heavy boxes around, paint the walls, replace furniture? It's a heck of a lot of work. Certainly not more often than every five or ten years, right?<!--more-->

What if we could just take a plan of our house instead, draw things where we want them to be, in the color we want it to have, and magically, everything rearranges itself? We could even strike off entire rooms, replacing them with newer, bigger, shinier versions. We'd certainly do that often. Everytime we see a little issue with the way things are, we kick the whole thing over and start anew.

That's what many managers do.

In the eight years that I've worked in a large corporation, my organization (IT) was completely restructured a grand total of six times. That's once every sixteen months. New managers came in, drew some boxes on some powerpoint slides, and the magic happened. Boom - shiny new house, everything's fresh and neat, we start from a clean slate. Great!

Nope. Not in the slightest.

Reorganizations are messy as hell. Magic doesn't exist, so we need lots of people to throw stuff into boxes, move furniture around, paint the walls, et cetera. Mistakes and accidents happen. Stuff doesn't end up where it belongs. Furniture breaks. There's paint and dirt everywhere. We wouldn't want to live in a house that's reorganized every sixteen months because we need to clean up behind everyone, and we can't find your stuff for days because it was put someplace we don't know. We need at least a few months to settle in again, until we've adapted to the changes.

The same things happen when we restructure an organization. Something that was running (more or less) well is ripped apart and rebuilt from the ground, with all the boxes someplace new. People and responsibilities get shifted around. It's hard to understand who is doing which job now. Employees need to adjust, understand the new organization and build up new work and communication processes. These things take time, and until it's done, our organization will run much less efficient. Then the next reorganization happens, and the whole thing starts again.

Why, then, do managers still insist on restructuring?
<ol>
<li><strong>To leave their footprint.</strong>
In higher levels of management, today, results are expected quickly. If they don't have anything to show after a few months of being in charge, they're gone. Restructuring the organization is a great way to showcase their ideas and demonstrate that something has happened, that they've implemented the change they were going to induce, that the house is much more pretty now even though below the surface, things are running much worse than before.</li>
<li><strong>Because they only trust people they know.</strong>
Soon after a new top level manager has been appointed, he will bring on his buddies to staff the (newly-created) management positions below him. That's a perfectly understandable human trait - we all want to work with persons we know and trust. However, this can also lead to an information bubble if all your information is filtered through the same people.</li>
<li><strong>Because that's what they've done before.</strong>
Managers like repetition. Repetition is expected to create consistent results, so if they've done something similar at a previous job, they're bound to re-create it in their new position because that's what they are used to.</li>
<li><strong>"To better reflect the business strategy and put the customer first".</strong>
If you've never heard something like this, you've never worked in a big company. While it may be true, it's often utter BS. Customer orientation is a mindset, not an org chart.</li>
<li><strong>To pull people out of their comfort zones.</strong>
Organizations are bound to become rigid over time. To get things moving and lay the ground for new ideas, it's sometimes necessary to break things apart and make visible changes. This can create mental momentum that leads to the adoption of new processes or ideas.</li>
<li><strong>To give aspiring leaders a chance.</strong>
Giving promising talents a shot is a trait of great managers. Restructurings are one way to create opportunities for the next generation of managers.</li>
<li><strong>Because that's what the consultants say.</strong>
On at least one occasion, I know for a fact that the restructuring of my organization was proposed by an external management consulting company and simply adopted by the CIO. I fear that many managers fall into the trap of doing things simply because consultants say they should.</li>
</ol>
You can see that I have an ambivalent relationship towards reorganizations. They may be useful, but in general I think that they are done far too often, and with too little support by competent agents of change. Too frequent restructurings will make the overall performance of an organization slump.

If we're going to completely turn an organization upside down, please let's make sure that people know precisely how things will run afterwards, and give them as much support, information and transparency as possible. When in doubt, I claim it's better to focus on remedying deficiencies within the current organization than build a completely new one.

<small>This post was created during Winnie Kao and Seth Godin’s <a title="YourTurnChallenge" href="http://yourturnchallenge.tumblr.com/" target="_blank">YourTurnChallenge</a> and also appears on their Tumblr.</small>