The grim reaper meeting a businessman

Author interview: Stephen Heidari-Robinson ‘ReOrg: How to Get it Right’

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Few words in engineering management create more fear among workers than ‘reorganisation’. But changing your corporate structure doesn’t have to be a scary process, says Stephen Heidari-Robinson.

No one can put their hand on their heart and say that they actually like being part of a corporate reorganisation. There are some compelling reasons for this. According to a new book on the subject only 70 per cent of restructurings deliver ‘some value’, while a woefully tiny 16 per cent are an ‘unqualified success’. What this means, says Stephen Heidari-Robinson, one half of the authorship duo responsible for ‘ReOrg: How to Get it Right’, is that the majority of attempts at the process fail in their objectives, while nearly a tenth actually ‘damage the organisations in the long run’.  If most managers in charge of restructuring companies were mountaineers, they’d never be let anywhere near mountains.

Heidari-Robinson, along with co-author Suzanne Heywood - both former consultants with McKinsey and with nearly half a century of management expertise between them - state in their first chapter, with an understatement that would be hilarious were it not so serious, that with statistics as damning as this: “you would probably conclude that there is significant scope for improvement”. Fortunately, with their excellent handbook on how to implement the ‘reorg’, there are five steps you can take to boost your chances of success. We’ll come on to this checklist a little later.

The elevator pitch for ‘Reorg’ is simply this: “there are lots of ways in which you can come up with the answer to how to restructure an organisation. But we believe that how you come up with the answer is often as important as what the answer actually is. Reorganisations cause a lot of human misery and suffering. They don’t need to be that way. And I think what we’re saying to engineering managers is that if you employ the approach to reorganisation that you would to a capital project, you wouldn’t go too far wrong.” Heidari-Robinson goes on to reiterate that, “at the same time this is also about human beings, and therefore how you interact with them during the process they are going through has a huge impact on whether you will succeed or fail.”

Interacting with the staff clustered around the reorganisation is critical, says Heidari-Robinson, who has acted as a consultant on 11 such projects that dealt specifically with engineering or technology companies. “There are two things to bear in mind here, and the first of these is that a lot of this comes down to common sense and not trading in buzzwords. It you look at these things in a logical manner - which particularly appeals to engineers - you can deliver a lot more value.” The second is that there is no substitute for knowing what you’re going to do, when you’re going to do it and then doing it in the right order, ‘otherwise there’s a very high chance that there will be problems later on.’

The reason we are frightened of the reorganisation, and the reason why the epithet has become a taboo word, is simply because there will be very few of us that have not been victims when it has been done badly in the past. “But it is worth acknowledging,” says Heidari-Robinson, “that when you are talking about a company’s growing pains, there will be people who are going to be upset no matter what you say. But you can minimise the impact of the reorganisation by doing it properly.”

One of the key components to “doing it properly” is to do it quickly, so that even if the news is bad, people can start to adjust to what the experience will mean to them. “I think that the process shouldn’t cause the amount of misery that it does, but you need to be aware that there will be insecurity and upset. And you need to manage that accordingly.” And yet, the push to execute the plan quickly is sometimes seen as counter-intuitive by managers who, according to the author, take the view that “a long, evolutionary process is somehow better. But the reality is that this approach just drags out the insecurity.” People respond better to clear leadership and prompt decision making, says Heidari-Robinson, even when the decision goes against them.

The manager in this environment is often cast in the role of the HR henchman or Grim Reaper. But it’s a job that, once the organisation is committed to it, has to be done. ‘You have to remember that this isn’t always a pleasant process’, but there is a plan revealed in the pages of the book that will at least ensure that you’re not improvising, or worse, making category errors. The first thing you need to do, say the authors, is to construct the reorg’s profit and loss. In other words, you will need to identify what you want to achieve and have a clear idea of what success looks like. Once you’ve identified these positions, move quickly and deliver the results as soon as possible. Equally important, although second on the list, is to have a clear-headed understanding of where the business is strong and where it is weak. “This will stop you throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Communicate often, share information and listen.”

Then and only then can you move to stage three, which is to develop the new structure. One of the critical failings - something Heidari-Robinson describes as a “fatal error” - is the propensity for organisations to jump straight in at point three, attempting to “engage stakeholders” before you have reached an understanding of what it is you are trying to achieve. Level four is the practical bit where you “get the plumbing and wiring right,” setting out deadlines, assessing leadership and moving the right people into the right roles to carry out the project. Then you “launch, learn and course-correct.”

It’s unlikely that you’ll get this right first time and so you need to keep a close watch on whether the reorg is delivering the expected results. “When the company returns to business as usual, are the new targets being met? It’s really a case of making sure you have a structured, common sense approach to a management process that is often thought of as being difficult. And sometimes it is difficult.” *

‘ReOrg: How to Get it Right’ by Stephen Heidari-Robinson and Suzanne Heywood is published by the Harvard Business Review Press, £21.99

‘ReOrg: How to Get it Right’

We read it for you

Everyone dreads the inevitable process of company restructuring. It’s time-consuming, non-productive, paranoia-inducing and it creates fear and anxiety among all staff. Research shows that persistent job insecurity has a greater impact on the health of workers than actual unemployment. Half of the people living under the spectre of reorganisation will be prone to some level of depression. These are the assertions of authors Stephen Heidari-Robinson and Suzanne Heywood in their new book ‘Reorg: How to Get it Right’, that takes as its starting position that corporate restructuring is akin to a ‘contact sport’ characterised by difficult discussions and hard decisions. But it doesn’t have to be quite so brutal, they say, offering a five-point action plan to make the process less bruising. Required reading for all engineering managers.

Common traps for leaders


Leaders of reorgs typically fall into one of two traps when communicating with their employees. We’ll call the first one ‘wait and see’ and the second ‘ivory tower idealism’. In the first trap, the leader of the reorg thinks that everything should be kept secret until the last moment, when he or she has all the answers. The leader makes the reorg team swear to secrecy and is then surprised when the news leaks to the wider organisation. As the reorg team starts to engage with the rest of the organisation, the rumours around the water cooler increase: Everyone thinks that the real reason for the reorg is job losses (whether it is the case or not). The leader, desperate to get in control of the situation, pushes the team to develop ‘the answer’ so that he or she can tell the organisation. Without an answer, the leader feels that any communication would come across as defensive. Eventually, the leader produces a high-level ‘org chart’ and will find out later why this is insufficient.

Ivory tower idealism fares little better. In this version the leader is finally getting a long-awaited objective: all the issues of the old organisation will finally get fixed. The leader can barely contain the excitement. So psyched up by the possibilities the reorganisation offers, the leader starts the process with a webcast to all staff, telling them about the business opportunities this opens up. The leader follows up with a series of walk-arounds in the major plants and offices, discussing the opportunities and getting input on some of the challenges that people are facing. The leader puts a personal blog on the company intranet. Unfortunately, human nature being what it is, no one believes what they read, and the leader is ridiculed.

Edited extract from ‘ReOrg: How to Get it Right’ by Stephen Heidari-Robinson and Suzanne Heywood, reproduced with permission. 

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