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How I learned to stop worrying and love reorgs

 This issue of Interface talks about some of the technological changes and opportunities for delighting our customers that are rising from the .NET initiative. But the changes haven’t ended there for most of us. I’m speaking of the dark side.

Yes, it’s the dark side that comes seemingly with each and every change in company and group strategy: reorgs, frigging reorgs. Frigging wastes of time, energy, and momentum. Just the physics of them makes you want to duck, cover, and hold onto your desk for fear of it being moved to another building.

Eric AsideThis column on reorganizations (reorgs) is targeted at managers, as are all the early Interface columns.

Down the Tower of Babel it goes

As the reorg message travels down successive layers of management, it gets diluted until finally the mail from your boss says, “Just doing the great work you’re doing; nothing changes for now.”

Of course, things will change for your group within three to six months. Maybe you’ll simply move offices; maybe your management team will change; maybe your group will merge with another or just be cut loose. Who knows? Certainly not your staff, because you wouldn’t want to tell them even if you did know. Why? Because plans could change five or six times between when you inform your staff and when change actually happens, and because of all the unease and distraction it would cause your folks.

Eric AsideYou shouldn’t hide it from them either, as I discussed in To tell the truth. If anyone asks about reorg rumors, you tell them the truth: “I have no idea what will happen or whether anything will happen at all. I do know what will happen if we can’t stay focused on the work at hand.”

Life in hell

Meanwhile, your life as a manager becomes a living hell. Even if you don’t tell your staff about the coming changes, rumors start flying. Soon you can feel the panic building in your junior staff, while cynicism leaches into your senior staff. In addition to actually doing your normal 60+ hours per week job, you need to

  • Calm and reassure your junior staff.
  • Convince your senior staff to care about the changes.
  • Grapple over offices and seniority on move maps.

Eric AsideTwo quick pieces of advice for office moves: avoid the southwest corner of a building, it gets hot; and use a purely objective, transparent method for choosing office assignments. (Microsoft uses time on the job, also known as seniority, down to the second you signed.)

  • Play political death match with new groups that cross yours.

Eric AsideIf two groups merge, each can have only one product unit manager (PUM), group program manager (GPM), dev manager, and test manager. A highly politicized battle can ensue.

  • Conspire with your manager to rephrase your group’s current plans to match those specified by the new upper management.
  • Fight the tendency to play philosophical Ping-Pong with your conscience and peers over making the right changes to your products that match the new company direction as opposed to meeting your ship dates.
  • Provide yet another educational series for your new upper management about what your group does.

How can this much nonsense be worth it? Why must we go through organizational self-mutilation every 9 to 18 months? I’ve got a theory, and it’s not the classic “We must always keep at least one large group moving because we don’t have enough office space” theory. Here goes…

The road less traveled

What makes big companies like IBM and Boeing as agile as a cashier on quaaludes? IMHO, old orgs are like old habits taking the path of least resistance. It’s hard to teach an old org new tricks. Why? Because people deal with folks they know much faster and easier than with those they don’t. If an org has been around awhile, no matter how sharp the people are who run it, they will still tend to work with the same peers repeatedly, rather than deal with someone new.

This is a recipe for making middle management stagnant and ineffective. The longer the same managers are in the same org, the more likely it is that they will make decisions based on people they know instead of what’s necessarily best for the company or the customer. It’s an insidious disease that infects even the smartest people and goes completely undetected. Their lives seem easier and more familiar, while their choices become more restricted and perverse. Total disaster.

How do we keep our managers alert to new possibilities and away from following old habits? We move them around—constantly. Short of getting rid of all middle management, which may seem tempting but really isn’t reasonable, the only way to keep our big company acting like a small one is to keep people moving—literally. Yeah, there’s pain in dealing with misinformed or apparently clueless new management, but it beats the “old boy” network every time for agility, flexibility, and forward thinking.

Eric AsideThe other solution is to flatten the organization—that is, remove layers of management by having larger numbers of people reporting to each manager. Microsoft has flattened a bit since I wrote this column, and a few groups are experimenting with flattening in the extreme. Going too far concerns me for the same reasons I don’t have 15 kids—lack of attention and lack of oversight—but it’s worth trying and learning from the result. You can learn more about Microsoft’s latest approach in Are we functional?

Of course, reexamining what you are doing and trying to explain how it fits into the corporate vision is a healthy exercise, and learning about people and projects in different orgs is always a good thing. Thus, I have learned to stop worrying and love reorgs.

Part of the problem or part of the solution?

Sure, we are in a highly competitive market where change is constant and new technologies, architectures, and platforms require us to adapt our strategies. But if all we do is shift focus and not people, our company will get organizational arthritis and stiffen till it becomes a corpse.

The question is, are you or your group part of the problem? If you’ve been in the same org too long, maybe things seem a little too comfortable and maybe it’s time to switch. If your boss has been in the same org too long, maybe it’s time to worry.

Regardless, the next time you get that mail from SteveB saying, “I’m as excited as I’ve ever been about the opportunities these changes will create,” suck it up and say, “Steve, I’m as excited as you. Keep up the good work and bring on the new org!”

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