How to mess up organisation design changes: a guide

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

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

Over the next few months, we will be exploring how organisations can successfully adopt digital change programmes, with a series of blogs and podcasts. Please tune in to find out more...

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 - a change that looks sensible on a spreadsheet can easily fail miserably if you ignore the fact that each row in the spreadsheet corresponds to an individual person. And sometimes these people don't share your vision for the new world. 

So how can you end up screwing up a change to your organisation’s design?

Talking to my colleagues, we discussed how many of us have seen lots of large companies make similar mistakes whilst changing their organisation’s design. Many of us have also, on occasions, 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 that 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. 

2. 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 that this was not the case and that 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.  

3. 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.

Some times, teams I’ve led have done this well. We timed our communications and struck the right balance between too early or too late. Feedback gathered showed how much this was appreciated. However, at other times, we messed up our communications; we didn’t give enough thought to 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. At worst, people will feel that they have been included in the conversation.  

Final thoughts...

I have tried to learn from all of these mistakes as I have matured as a leader, myself. 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!