Managing Through a Team Reorganization
Engineering Manager at N/A
Who Moved My Cheese?
In today’s fast-paced environment, companies must continually adapt to the marketplace. They need to realign internal organizational structures periodically as their goals change. These are the dreaded “reorgs”; necessary evils that employees dread due to the turmoil they cause.
A few years ago, I was part of one such massive reorganization. Hundreds of employees found that their manager, mission, or both had changed. On a personal level, this was an exciting growth opportunity; overnight, my team size doubled. However, it was also a time of confusion and anxiety. Half my team had to adapt to me as their new manager. The other half were concerned that their projects would change. I had only a vague idea of my new team’s mission. Everyone around us was in the same situation. Every meeting devolved into gossip about who was leaving and which project would get canceled.
In such a situation, employees can become demoralized and unproductive or even leave the team. Successfully leading through a reorg takes empathy, determination, and focus.
Building Resilience During Uncertainty
EMBRACE THE UNCERTAINTY
My team had many questions, and I felt my first job was to figure out the answers. My boss, however, convinced me that our first job was to address the situation head-on.
We scheduled a day-long brainstorming event for the new team. We acknowledged the concerns and uncertainty. We didn’t pretend to have answers. Instead, we challenged them to seize the opportunity and collectively brainstormed new product ideas. People left the event feeling heard and empowered.
CHECK-IN EARLY, CHECK-IN OFTEN
Reorgs are a busy time for managers as they navigate a new organization and strategy. However, even during the busiest weeks, I made time for weekly 1:1s with every team member. This simple gesture made the most significant difference to team morale. Many folks had questions or opinions that they were unwilling to share in broader meetings. Others simply welcomed the reassurance of regular face-time. I had lunch and coffee with the team as often as possible, and all these opportunities helped me see red flags I would otherwise have missed.
KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON
Reorgs mean new strategy and direction, but those take time to materialize. In the meantime, it is vital to give the team clear goals and keep them productive. Even when our new goals were unclear, I set OKRs as usual, tracked project progress, and held engineers accountable for their deliverables.
Make decisions with the best data you have on hand. If a decision is wrong, pivoting a project is painful but doable. Recapturing lost morale is more challenging. Engineers who aren’t regularly executing on clear priorities will lose faith in the organization and leave.
BUT WORK TO REDUCE AMBIGUITY
Meanwhile, keep working on setting new goals and unblocking your projects. Figure out which teams you now depend on and how their priorities fit yours. Work closely with your product managers to formulate your team’s strategy.
A reorg often creates gaps in ownership and knowledge. Your questions to senior management may go unanswered. But the confusion can work to your benefit if you seize the moment. Step up to help resolve the ownership and knowledge gaps. Set up a social event for managers in the new organization. Organize tech talks for knowledge exchange between teams. Your initiative will be appreciated, and you will help the entire organization move forward more quickly and cohesively.
What My First Reorg Taught Me
- While the experience was stressful and sometimes very unpleasant, I learned a lot along the way :
- Be authentic, transparent, and optimistic in that order. Be upfront with your team about your doubts and uncertainties but reiterate why you are hopeful. If they trust you, they will stick with you.
- Build a small, tightly knit, trusted group — typically, your product manager and senior engineers — with whom you can regularly consult.
- Uncertainty creates a lot of turbulence. Shut out the noise and stay laser-focused on priorities. Act as quickly as you can. Indecision often hurts more than incorrect decisions.
- Lastly, some perspective: Just as my team settled in, we had another reorg. Change is the only constant. Aim to be the calm, empathetic person amid turmoil, and you will win your colleagues' permanent respect and trust.
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