Jacob Kaplan-Moss

So you’ve been reorg’d…

The email will have a perfectly anodyne subject: something like “Organization Updates”. Or maybe you’ll hear about it at All Hands: the MC will toss to your VP or CEO or someone with, again, a very bland intro: “now here’s Chris to give some team updates.”

Most of the time, nobody will use the word “reorganization”, but that’s whats happening. Your team’s being split up or dissolved, or moved to a different part of the organization, and you have a new and different reporting chain. Probably a leader or two is departing as well. This’ll be explained as un- or only partially-related, and that might be true or it might not.

I’ve been through close to a dozen reorgs. This article contains the advice I wish I’d been given earlier in my career when I didn’t yet have that experience. Reorgs are disruptive, and nobody really tells you what to do in the wake of one. It’s easy to feel adrift, scared for your future, and uncertain about how to behave. Some of that fear is warranted: your job security probably goes down in the months following a reorg. But confusion and chaos aren’t necessarily signs that the reorg will go poorly, and there are things you can do to help give you and your team a better chance of emerging successfully.

This is normal

The first thing to understand is that chaos is normal, and not an indicator that the reorg will fail.

If you’ve not been working in tech for long, a major reorg will feel wildly chaotic and disruptive. If you have been working in this field for long… well, reorgs will still feel chaotic and disruptive, but you’ll recognize that chaos, by itself, isn’t a sign that anything particularly terrible is happening.

My experience is that reorgs happen pretty frequently. A reorg every 2-5 years wouldn’t be unusual. Some of them will be well-planned and carefully executed, but most aren’t. The key point is that the amount of chaos doesn’t correlate to the success of the reorg: I’ve seen very carefully-planned and well-executed reorgs end in disaster, and I’ve seen phoenixes rise from the ashes of total dumpster fire reorgs.

Note to leaders: this is not permission to YOLO your reorgs! Chaotic reorgs do have all sorts of negative consequences — attrition, lost productivity, and ulcers. Just because the eventual outcomes might be positive doesn’t give you permission to put your people through a tough reorg. To the degree you’re able to plan for a calm and smooth transition1: please do so.

Even in the smoothest, best-planned reorgs, things will feel weird and uncomfortable for a while — a couple of months, typically. There’ll be “aftershocks” as some of the initial decisions prove incorrect. You might bounce between teams or managers a couple of times before you land in your final (for now) destination. Your role might change a little or a lot. Projects might get canceled (and then restarted, and then canceled again). The point is: all of this is normal (not good… but not unusual). Don’t interpret the chaos as a sign that things are necessarily going to fail: take a “wait and see” attitude about the whole thing.

Prepare for decreased job security: update your resume and preserve references

Now for the bad news: your job security goes down in the weeks following a reorg. This is unfair, but it’s true. Unfortunately, most reorgs are reactions to some form of failure, and your bosses likely don’t have full confidence in anyone right now, including you. Your performance will be under close scrutiny in the immediate aftermath of a reorg. And while it’s rare for layoffs to follow reorgs, reorgs can result in roles or entire teams just going away. Once the job settles, your job might not exist. Or you may find you don’t like the new role, team, or manager. Finally, speaking of managers: you’re likely to have a new one after a reorg. Or if not a new manager, likely some shakeups above them, at the Director or VP level. Either way: new bosses mean you won’t be able to lean on existing relationships that might have previously been giving you some job security.

There are silver linings to this: if you had a bad boss, or if the role was a bad fit, you might end up in a better place. If you were on a PIP, you might find the timeline extended since your new bosses can’t be sure if the old structure contributed to your performance struggles. More often than not, actually, once the dust settles the majority of folks who are able to remain find themselves better off.

But none of that takes away from the fact that, all else being equal, it’s more likely you’ll get fired or laid off in the wake of a reorg than immediately beforehand. It’s a good idea to prepare for the worst.

Concretely, here’s what I recommend: within a week of hearing about a reorg, do these things:

  1. Update your resume: be ready to send it out immediately if you have to.
  2. Preserve references: if someone you were hoping to be a reference is departing as part of a layoff, contact them immediately and get personal contact info.
  3. Write down what changes you would and would not welcome to your current role. You may or may not get a say in any eventual changes to your role/team/org, but you should be prepared to voice your preferences if you get that opportunity.

“Chop wood and carry water”

That’s what one of 18F’s leaders told us in the wake of a particularly painful reorg, and the line’s stuck with me. All of this disruption and uncertainty makes it easy to lose focus and spend all your time worrying and ruminating about the future. You might not have anyone paying attention to your work for a while; it can be tempting to coast. This is dangerous: as I explained above, the days after a reorg are very dangerous times to be unproductive, both individually and team-wide.

So one of the best things you can do in the aftermath of a reorg is to put your head down and do your job. Focus on the little things, the basic tactical day-to-day tasks that have to get done to keep the organization healthy. “Chop wood and carry water.”

Yes, it’s possible that in the days to come your role will change, perhaps substantially, and perhaps these tasks will end up falling to someone else. But in the meantime, someone has to “chop wood and carry water”, so why not you? You’ll make sure your team stays healthy while the dust settles, and you’ll be seen to be delivering — not a bad first impression for your new management.

Avoid gossip and speculation

I mean this in two ways:

  • Don’t participate in gossip or speculation. If you know details of the reorg that aren’t publicly available, don’t share them at work. (Vent to a friend or a partner or a therapist if you need to.) And if you don’t know, refuse to speculate.
  • Don’t consume gossip or speculation. If someone tells you a “secret” about the transition, try to ignore it. You don’t know if it’s true! Even if it is, if it’s news you shouldn’t know, and you should try to not let it color your work.

The truth about reorgs is that you’ll probably never know the full truth. Sumana told me that she experiences the official messaging about reorgs like hearing the parents from Peanuts talking: “wah wah wah wah” – nonsense syllables, not real words.

That’s… not unfair! There’s often a bunch of platitudes or half-truths in the messaging around reorgs. Management will always talk about the upsides: “we’re doing this to better align to business objectives”; “we changing directions to have better market positioning”; “this’ll be good for you since you’re ending up a team that’s more focused around your strengths”; etc. These things are usually true, but also most of the time they’re not the whole truth.

Reorgs are reactions to systemic failure

The truth is that the majority of the time a major reorg will have been triggered by systemic failure. For example:

  • A team — or a whole organization — hasn’t been performing to acceptable levels, for months (e.g. a customer support team that continually falls behind on their ticket queue, chronically).
  • A product no longer fits the market and the team hasn’t adapted (e.g. a competitor has come out with a better product for less).
  • A manager or director is failing at their job (e.g. a manager has attrition many times worse than the organization at large, and it’s clear that the manager is the common factor).
  • The company’s burn rate is no longer sustainable, i.e. they’re running out of money.
  • The board has lost faith in the vision or strategy of a an executive.

Often it’s a combination of a few of these major factors. Whatever the case, it’s bad enough that leadership has concluded there’s a systemic problem, and they need to fix the system. It’s the organizational equivalent of a major technical refactoring, like realizing that your database has failed to scale with your app and you need to switch to an entirely new architecture.

You might be told, or be able to infer, some of this. But often you won’t, particularly if one of the components involves job performance. This is frustrating, but it’s better than the alternative: you don’t want to work for an organization that makes job performance public! Flip the situation around: imagine that you were really struggling at your job, and then one day at All Hands your boss gets up and says, “Steve has been failing at his job so we’re moving his responsibilities to Lisa and Charlie.”

I’d go even further, in fact, and say that if management airs this kind of dirty laundry during a reorg, that’s a red flag. You want executives who are taking responsibility for fixing problems moving forward. If they’re instead focusing on assigning blame, that’s a sign their attitude is that this was someone else’s problem and they’ve “fixed” it by firing them, job done. This is rarely true, and it’s a dangerous line of thinking.

So, you need to accept this weird charade:. Management is going to tell you half-truths about the reorg, and you’re going to pretend you don’t know they’re leaving some things out. They’re going to pretend that they don’t know that you know… and so on. Unless you’re at highest levels of organizational leadership, you probably won’t ever know the full truth behind a reorganization. And that’s all OK.

If you have new bosses, work to build that new relationship quickly

If you end up with a new manager: your first imperative should be to begin to build your relationship with them. Don’t wait for them to: try to set up time to meet with them immediately. Brief them on what your job has been to date (if they don’t already know), and ask them right away if there’s anything about your job they’d like to change. Also ask if there’s anything you can do to help the reorg go more smoothly. Your best defense against decreased job security is to build that new relationship quickly.

This is tricker to do if the new management is a level or three above your boss, but you can try. If you’ve got a new Director or VP, you might not be able to get on their calendar – but it doesn’t hurt to ask. They may welcome hearing directly an IC in their new organization.

That’s the advice I wish I’d had about reorgs earlier in my career. What advice about reorgs do you wish you’d gotten? Get in touch and let me know!

  1. Yes, it is possible to execute a smooth, well-planned, non-chaotic reorg. Maybe a topic for a future blog post… ↩︎