When structural change is not the messiah

When structural change is not the messiah
By Diya Dey

Are people in your organisation tired of hearing the term ‘’restructure’’ being thrown around every time there is a significant change in leadership? Most employees see restructuring as a redundant exercise which creates havoc with workflow and productivity, unsettles them and accomplishes very little otherwise. But a well implemented, purpose-driven restructure can in fact do wonders for an organisation’s effectiveness. So the question arises – when is a restructure the right solution?

Most new leaders fall into the trap of thinking that structural change is the best way to refresh and revive the organisation and essentially ‘’shake things up”. Unfortunately, a large number of these restructures are unsuccessful ventures because of inadequate planning, implementation, and most importantly, engagement with staff on the ground.

Structure is one of the most significant infrastructures within any organisation. It is inextricably linked to a range of macro and micro organisational elements. At a macro level it has to be aligned to the broader mission and vision of the organisation, leadership and management practices, and existing organisational systems and cultural norms. At a micro level, it has a significant impact on workflow, individual and team capabilities as well as on motivation and engagement. Consider an organisation that has a strategic imperative to be more collaborative and innovative. A structure that is hierarchical and rigid would most certainly make it challenging to implement a culture of innovation and collaboration. But before any changes to the structure are implemented, we also need to consider how a change in structure might impact on the actual workflow and associated systems and process that are in place. Changing structure is complex and has an impact on a multitude of organisational factors.

The harsh reality is that all these factors are rarely taken into consideration when a decision to restructure is made.  It is often through the process of talking to employees, whose workflows are disrupted or complicated through the restructure, that we feel the frustration and disengagement these decisions create. It is not uncommon for employees to express views like:

“This is the third restructure we’ve had in the past two years and I am yet to see it have a positive impact on organisational performance.”


“The last restructure was supposed to provide our team with more resources but that never happened.  My workload is worse than ever and the number of extra processes we now have are out of control.”


“The problem with this organisation is that these decisions are imposed upon us.  We don’t get a say in what happens. They don’t ask how it impacts what we do day to day.”

These statements are typical examples of the cynicism and disenchantment that staff experience through frequent restructures. They also highlight the fundamental point that organisations miss – i.e. having purpose-driven changes with tangible impacts. Key decision makers need to shift their focus from looking at restructures as a change in the organisational chart – who is reporting to whom and where are they located vis-à-vis others on the organisational chart. Instead they need to focus far more on the how restructures are impacting on the workflow, efficiency and results. The key deciding factor to embark on a restructure process should be informed by the end in mind. How are our staff working together? Are our processes the most efficient and productive? Will a change in the structure address these issues?

Often a change in organisational structure is simply not necessary and creates unnecessary change.  Employees see the change in structure with new reporting relationships as a big disruption to their existing working relationships and work processes.  It creates uncertainty and generates unhelpful speculation and gossip.  They take the focus away from what is happening now.  It’s a distraction that undermines current productivity.

Sometimes a restructure is also seen as the ‘easy’ option for dealing with underperformance or ‘problem’ employees. Rather than addressing the core issue of underperformance, these individuals get shuffled around from one team to another through a series of restructures. Little consideration is given to the potential toxic impact they might have on the new team’s work climate and environment and overall performance. By the time any manager is brave enough to tackle the actual issue, there’s a bullying claim waiting to happen because there is no precedent of prior underperformance. So the next time there is a proposed restructure, stop and ask – is a restructure necessary? Are we just evading having to performance manage and have difficult conversations with particular individuals?

Are all restructures unhelpful?

No, they aren’t. When done for the right reasons and executed well, a restructure can create a significant shift in the culture of the workplace. A decision to restructure needs to be purpose driven. Here are some examples of instances where a restructure might be the appropriate solution and would help to make a difference:

  • Breaking down silos and sub-cultures within an organisation
  • Removing single point dependencies on certain functions or roles
  • Encouraging better knowledge sharing, innovation and collaboration across divisions
  • Eliminating bureaucratic systems and decision making processes
  • Shifting the products and services that are offered by the organisation
  • Reduction in employee numbers and reallocation of resources across functions

Irrespective of what drives a restructure, it is also imperative to recognise that at the end of the day, a restructure is a change process and the fundamental principles underpinning successful change need to apply – consultation and engagement. Upfront consultation and involvement may also help organisations identify potential alternate solutions to a restructure.

In some cases rather than affecting change through formal adjustments to organisational structure, a well-considered, informal approach may generate the same results with less disruption. For example, some of the issues listed above could be addressed by implementing an activity based way of working This involves proactively identifying priority business issues and quickly assembling teams with the required skills.  An activity based way of working can enable better collaboration and sharing of ideas, dramatically reduce approval and authorisation time, lead to better delegated decision making, and empower employees to take initiative and move rapidly to form the best available team to solve business critical issues in real time.

In an environment where organisations are constantly required to be agile, responsive and reinvent themselves to changing demands, perhaps formal organisational structures are going to become less and less relevant and restructures may become a thing of the past in the future world of work.

What do you think?


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Guest Monday, 21 January 2019