How to mess up organisation design changes: a guide

How can firms ensure they successfully optimise the adoption of their programmes or projects?

How to mess up organisation design changes: a guide

How can firms ensure they successfully optimise the adoption of their programmes or projects?

how to mess up organisation design changes a guide

With transformation being at the top of the agenda for most organisations, with everything from implementation through to stakeholder engagement, how do firms ensure they optimise the adoption of their programmes or projects?

Change is always tough. But changing a colleague’s reporting line, responsibilities, or role is particularly tough as it is more personally disruptive than other types of change. It can be upsetting, frustrating, demotivating, and make people want to quit. Moving people into teams, out of teams, or changing their day-to-day activities might look sensible on a spreadsheet, but changes like these can easily fail if you ignore the fact that each row corresponds to an individual person. And sometimes these people don’t share your vision for the new world. 

So, how can you inadvertently screw up a change to your organisation’s design?

My Clarasys colleagues and I have seen lots of large companies make similar mistakes whilst changing their organisation’s design. Many of us have, on occasion, made similar mistakes ourselves whilst working for organisations and leading teams undergoing change.  

So what would we do differently?

  1. Listen to the people who are going to be impacted – and actually try to understand their view[1]

It doesn’t mean you have to act on every request – you can disagree with what they are saying. However, the general feeling is that people will usually accept more change and disruption if they feel you are, at least, listening to their worries. 

I’ll fully admit that when I’ve been leading teams, I haven’t always given people the full space to air their concerns during times of change… and then I found myself frustrated (even annoyed!) when they didn’t play ball afterwards. 

  1. Learn from different perspectives

I worked at an organisation that underwent a sizeable merger during my time there. As part of this, my team absorbed a number of ‘new’ people.

The ‘new’ team members did things quite differently to us and I believe that we missed opportunities to absorb these new-found practices into our business. We either felt that we did things “the proper way” or, when it was clear the new company did something better than us, we would explain it away as “outside our control”. As well as losing decent learning opportunities, we also missed another opportunity to make our new colleagues feel valued, included, and listened to.  

  1. Communicate changes at the right time

This is easier said than done. If you communicate changes too early – i.e. before important logistics and details have been worked out – you risk creating more disruption and frustration when you can’t answer people’s questions. If you communicate changes too late, people feel like the change is being “done to them” and that they have no voice.

Sometimes, teams I’ve led have done this well. We timed our communications and struck the right balance between too early or too late. Feedback showed how much this was appreciated. However, at other times, we messed up our communications; we didn’t give enough thought to the timing or content of the messaging.

There is no playbook for this and each situation will be different. Generally, my philosophy would be to communicate early, and be transparent that not everything has been fully worked out. This way, people will feel that they have been, at the very least, included in the conversation.  

Final thoughts…

I have tried to learn from all of these mistakes as I have matured as a leader. I think the items above hold true regardless of whether you are doing a huge, multi-year transformation, or just changing a single individual’s role. My key takeaway would be to remember that when you change anything – be it an organisation structure or anything else – at the heart of the change are your people. Engage your employees and they will engage with the change.


[1] There is lots of great material online about the differences between “listening to understand” vs “listening with the intent to reply”. Apparently, only 10% of us are very good at the former – but (thankfully) it is a skill that can be learned if you have the will and intention to do so!


To learn more about how we can help you with people and change management, or to speak with one of our change experts, please get in touch!

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