Want your institution to do new or better work? Don’t reorganize

Creating a new org chart – and attending to employees’ anxiety – requires massive effort. That energy is better spent experimenting and evaluating new ways of working.

When a leader envisions new or improved work, the natural impulse is to reorganize in order to get the people and resources in place to do the work. Unfortunately, reorganizing sucks up energy – which is the very thing needed to get things done.

Efforts at reorganizing can confuse leaders into thinking that creating the org chart is the same as doing the work.

Years ago a denominational executive shared with me the organization’s new vision for ministry, which he said was best understood by reviewing a new staff organizational chart. With the pride of a new parent, he described each job on the chart and how they would work together.

If a leader says you need to see the org chart to understand an organization’s mission, a warning light should be flashing over the door. I have been to many Christian organizations, including the one above, that created a new structure every three years. As a result, nothing about their activities actually changed.

Reorganizing requires massive effort. One new institutional CEO unveiled the new organization and informed the 70-member staff that every person would be changing offices in two weeks.

Something similar happens in any reorganization. Employees and other stakeholders are disoriented. No one is sure who to call for what. Employee morale sinks. The overall effectiveness of the organization drops as it focuses on internal processes. Badly managed processes lower effectiveness more, but all reorganization efforts have a negative short-term effect.

Instead of reorganizing, what would happen if the new or improved work was started as an experiment? Get it started, review the results, make adjustments in the process and then reorganize to keep the effective elements going over time.

Sometimes reorganizing is essential. I worked with a congregation that wanted help in reorganizing its committees. I explained how life-depleting the process would be. The leaders showed a leadership report that had three times as many positions as the number of people who attended on a Sunday. Every active church member had three or four positions. Maintaining the system was life-depleting, so reorganizing and rearticulating a vision for ministry seemed worth the cost.

The most difficult, painful reorganizations are those whose purpose is to reduce cost. Often employees feel that management is not being honest about the reasons behind the changes. Those who keep their jobs often express more feelings of insecurity and loss of control than those who leave.

When such moves are necessary consultant David Noer suggests using good helping skills, including careful listening and creating safe, productive environments for venting; re-recruiting the survivors by inviting them to meaningful work as when they were first hired; and communicating with truth and authenticity.

In a perfect world, when facing changing work, I encourage folks to create temporary teams to get started with the work. Once the work is established, some people will decide the new work is not their work and move on. Every opening in the staff is an opportunity to tweak the structure. Such constant “reorganizing” can help minimize the need for downsizing or more extreme reorganizations.

Keeping the importance of the structure in perspective is critical. Deep emotions are invested in titles, lines of reporting, size and shape of boards, locations of office and the rest. Once stirred up, these emotions must be dealt with in loving, careful ways. Leaders need to have the reserves of time and attention needed for seeing this work through to completion.