An Alternative Approach to Re-Orgs At Your Company

Re-orgs are an essential part of scaling a team at a company. The organizational structure of the company six months ago may no longer align to the needs of the company or its customers today. While most people would agree with the statement above that insists re-orgs are necessary, everyone hates them. They almost always make some people unhappy, cause employee departures, and stifle productivity both before and after they are executed.

I’ll start with a story of how this works in practice. Grubhub had a fairly stable structure for most of the time I worked there. While it was stable, it certainly wasn’t traditional. While we had crafted large sales, marketing, and customer service teams, we had a very small engineering team for our size and no official product and design teams. The latter two we de facto managed by marketing and a combination of executive leadership. While most companies at the time had a clear product manager role, Grubhub did not. We had product strategy led by marketing and the co-founders, and project managers within engineering that worked with those stakeholders to build effective software. I hired a member of my team to build a loyalty program. This meant that they would do user research, build models that project impact and costs, and work with engineering to launch experiments that would increase frequency of ordering on Grubhub. The person we hired was, in short, awesome. She did a bunch of great research partnering with our UX researcher, built detailed financial models that projected impact, brainstormed many ideas with our designers, and built good rapport with our project managers and engineers when it came time to finally build something.

Around this time, we started discussing as a leadership team if it made sense to start building a product management function for Grubhub. Being privy to those conversations, as I was having my quarterly review with this member of my team, I suggested product management would be a good avenue for her if we create that function, but she would probably need to leave my team to do it. We talked through the details of why I felt that made sense given what she was doing, and she was very open to it.

Fast forward three months, and as I’m on my way to work, I receive an email from my manager the VP Marketing asking to meet when I get in (she always got in super early). When I did, she announced that we were creating a product management function, and that as they thought about what the members of that team should look like, they felt like this member of my team was a perfect model of what a product manager should be at Grubhub. So, effective immediately, they were moving her off my team to be the first consumer product manager. The co-founder of the company was meeting with her when she got in to explain the move, and email would go out right after, and my 1:1 was with her later in the day.

That 1:1 was awkward. While this was ultimately what I wanted for her, and she was nervously happy about it (it’s nice having the co-founder of the company say your behavior is a model of behavior they want at the company), things still felt off. What is supposed to happen to her current projects? What new projects is she picking up? She at one point during the meeting said “oh, you seem sad”. And I wasn’t, just more caught off-guard, and thinking even though we’re making the right decision, are we making it in the right way?

This I find is usually the best case scenario for re-orgs. VPs and C level execs are attuned enough to make the right calls, but execute it top down without director, middle management or IC involvement or feedback on their ideas, leading to a change that is good on paper and may be good in practice too, but seems to strip the team of control. And far more common is the flip side of this scenario: when VPs and C level execs think they know what is good for the people and the team, don’t seek out necessary feedback, and make the wrong call for both the organization and people’s careers who are affected by the re-orgs.

For one of my the companies I advise, going into 2019, for one our business units we knew we likely had to change our organizational structure. Trying not to repeat re-org mistakes, we started working on a structure that would make the re-org act like a feedback-fueled progress driven by the teams instead of by people above them. The first thing we worked on as a leadership team was the objectives for 2019. What did we need to achieve next year to be successful? We then went to the product managers, designers, and engineering managers and explained the objectives. We then tasked them to propose the organizational structure that would help them with these objectives.

They worked directly with their teams to make sure everyone understood the objectives, everyone’s interests and career aspirations, and then they proposed the structure to the leadership team. After this presentation, we worked more to understand the constraints that led to this recommendation, worked through some of those constraints so the team didn’t need to make as many compromises on what they wanted, and then solidified the structure. The product managers, engineering managers, and designers talked through the changes with the rest of the teams, and organically the teams started planning with the new structure in mind. They then set their own team objectives to the align to the business units, as well as their roadmap and key results.

By involving the team members that would be effected from the beginning and making it their decision, we avoided a lot of the awkwardness or bad calls of many re-orgs I have participated in. The teams are happy and working on the new objectives seamlessly. Now, there will certainly be re-orgs that can’t be this inclusive, such as those that involve the transitioning out of an executive, or with teams that would not be capable of tying the objectives to an effective team structure. The former will never be seamless when people’s managers leave. The latter indicates a separate problem of lack of team responsibility that needs to be addressed first. But if you are not facing one of these scenarios, here are some things I have learned you may want to incorporate into your next re-org.

  1. Start with making sure the objectives of the company/team/business unit, etc. are clear, and that the executive team is aligned on them.
  2. Inform the teams affected that the new objectives create an opportunity for them to re-organize to be more effective at achieving these objectives.
  3. Empower the teams to propose a new structure that would better allow them to achieve the objectives
  4. When these teams present their proposals, make sure they focus on talking through the constraints that led to their proposal. These are frequently resourcing e.g. not enough Android engineers, cross-department collaboration or lack thereof e.g. no SRE support next quarter, technical or design debt, et al., They can be relationship based or based on location for distributed teams.
  5. Resist the urge to edit the choices directly as a leadership team. Instead, focusing on editing their constraints.

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