Fight the Urge to Reorganize

New government leaders will learn reorganizations have little to do with the work of their agencies.
by | February 24, 2011 AT 1:00 PM

My home office is a disaster area. It is so bad, I try to pass it off as modern art and tell guests the entire room is a statement about how I think "being busy equals fulfillment." My kids are so afraid that a pile of papers may fall and crush them, that I hide Christmas gifts in plain sight with no fear they'll find them. The room is a cross between the bargain bin at one of those big name electronic stores and an episode of Hoarders.

Every so often, maybe twice a year, I head down to straighten it out. I go to the Container Store for bins, and file boxes, and anything I can find to help me organize. The last time, it literally took me three days to find the desk. When I was done I was exhausted and vowed to keep it neat from now on. In about a week, it was back to Hoarder status. The truth is, the way I work is not conducive to a tidy office, and I accept that all my efforts to reorganize my workspace means nothing until I change how I work.

Luckily, I only waste about six days a year reinforcing this lesson, and the time spent sorting and stacking is only my own. When we do this at work we waste months discussing who should answer to whom, meeting with facilities management to see how we could rearrange the cubes and trying to find money in an already tight budget for new carpet squares. We can waste a year in reorganization.

As a newly appointed head of a government agency, fight the urge to reorganize! Do everything in your power to resist the temptation of taking what may look like a discombobulated office and "streamlining" it by moving around boxes on an org chart and cubes on your floorspace. Failure to resist, and you run the risk of wasting a year or more and finding out at the end of the day that the organizational structure has less to do with the work your organization does than almost anything else you could have spent your time on.

From an employee perspective it's another round of "been there, done that."

Ken and I often ask people in our workshops how many reorganizations have they survived. The numbers are staggering. In a 20-year career, there are people that have experienced 10-plus attempts to streamline through reorganization. Every other year, a new boss, a new workspace and a new parking spot. I might find this number harder to believe if my first few years working in government was a bit more stable, but within the first two years of employment I had moved offices three times, including a move to an entirely new building. All in the same job. I was not even past my probationary period and I had a new view.

I remember being at the amusement park Kennywood as a kid, and riding the turtle roller coaster. While this park is known for some amazing coasters, after the first few laps in the turtle car I just kind of checked out until the ride was over. It just wasn't fun, and the constant round and round got mundane. Your reorganization will feel like that to most employees. They've been on that roller coaster so many times you cannot expect Phantom's Revenge excitement when offering just another spin in the tea cup.

It's not where you sit, it's what you do.

Even worse than having your employees sit in the coaster car faking a smile while you talk about your changes is that the changes you are making are not improvements. Improvements to our work do not come from reporting structures. If you want to improve the work, you have to get into the pipes. The pipes of government, where the work occurs is where the real mess is. The problems your agency is facing, the need to increase capacity and reduce the costs is all in the pipes. Your pipes are twisted and clogged, and reorganization is akin to replacing the sink faucet without ever thinking about the tangled mess behind the drywall and under the floorboards.

As a new leader, I encourage you to take the time to look at the pipes before looking at the people. Pick one of the many widgets your agency makes and staple yourself to that application, permit or license, and follow it step by step throughout it's lifespan. Look for where you're pipes are clogged, where the water is having a hard time flowing freely and where your customers are having the most problems. Reorganize the work before the organization!

If you just have do it...

If the temptation is too much and you just have to reorganize, please remember that the people you are reorganizing have not only been spinning round and round on this same ride, but have also been doing as much of the real work as they possible could. Despite the messy pipes, they have been keeping the water moving through. Honor their efforts by making an effort to do a few things first:

  1. Know your widgets. Believe it or not, you are a plant manager and oversee hundreds, if not thousands, of assembly lines making widgets everyday. Figure out what you make, and the pipes, with all their kinks and twists, are magically made visible again.
  2. Know your direction. In addition to running the plant, you have to be an advocate for the strategic direction of your department and the needs of your customers. When we took on the task of combining fourteen IT shops into a single agency in Missouri, we spent the first six months meeting with customers and building a five-year plan before we ever spoke about the org chart. Every box we moved or created had specific goals long before we considered who would do what and who would report to whom.
  3. Know that it's not the people. Most reorganization meetings I have attended have forced me to endure an unequal amount of time discussing personalities, preferences and personnel issues. We get caught up in office politics: How can we get someone a pay raise? How can we make assure our friends get a window seat? Your amazing people will be amazing in any structure; your less than amazing people will find a way to be, well, less than amazing. You don't change people by changing the line from their box to the next, and even if you could, you don't change organizational performance by changing the people.

You have a number of challenges in front of you throughout the next several years. Time will fly by and before you know it, a new transition team will be looking over your shoulder. Use that precious time on what counts. Go after the pipes and leave the reorganizing for your closet, car and basement office.

Have a story about a successful or unsuccessful reorganization? We want to hear from "Change Agents" in the comment section below.