I have helped many organisations to restructure. I used to do it using a typical consulting method. I would talk to a bunch of stakeholders in the organisation, consider the strategic purpose of the organisation, look at the structures of similar organisation, do some analysis and then make a recommendation about the right structure. Some kind of governance group would then approve the structure and then we would undertake the gruesome task of attempting to implement the new structure. Months of grief, if not years as people reacted with everything from distaste to outright rebellion.

The big issue, the key stumbling block with organisational restructures is that no matter how you do it, some people gain power and some lose it. For this reason people fear and hate restructures.

Some years ago I was thinking about “neural coaching”, an approach to change management based on facilitation and designed to accord rather than fight with people’s natural mental processes. I had used this approach with great success on a range of individual and group development issues. It occurred to me that I might use this approach on organisational restructures.

I pitched to a client that instead of providing expert advice on the right structure I would facilitate a group of their staff and they would restructure the organisation. Not chosen experts, not a small, specialist group, but a large, representative group. The client had not heard of this approach (me either, really) but they assented and off we went. The stages were as follows:

  1. Tell staff that a representative group of their colleagues will restructure the organisation. Tell them that you want them to nominate staff that they think would represent their views and whom they trust. By the way, never use volunteers in this kind of activity – volunteers are intrinsically unrepresentative of their colleagues.

  2. Run a nomination process. Staff are sent a communication formally inviting nominations. They need to make their nominations to a specified staff member who will record all the nominations. They need to copy in the person they are nominating so they can decline if they want (they almost never do).
  3. Assemble the group. I have often done this with over 100 people. BTW, I have no idea why people think that change management is done best with small groups. Why have the army against you when they could be with you?
  4. Get them to set a destination for a good structure. What are the characteristics of a good structure? Clear? No duplication? Easy to understand? I get them to come up with the ideas and then vote for them. Maybe five points which describe an optimum structure. This gives us a target to move towards.
  5. Introduce some organisation structure theory. I often use process centered organisation structure theory because it is one of the few organisation structure concepts which has research backing. Give the group the theory in simple and easy to understand form and get them to discuss the strengths and limitations of the approach.
  6. Run an option creation session. Because I tend to use process centered org structure theory I usually split the large group into many smaller ones and get them to identify high level processes which run through the organisation. The idea of process centered organisation structure is you work out the key processes which flow through an organisation and then structure around them. This gets us a way from traditional silos and typically results in improved efficiency.
  7. After the group has been through this priming activity invite them to invent, in partnership with colleagues, suggested structures for the organisation. Pick a date a couple of weeks to a month in the future and let them know that as many people as want to will be able to present potential structures for the organisation. Tell them that the decision will be based on a simple majority vote.
  8. Stage the presentation day. I usually find that between 5 and 12 groups present at this forum. At the end everyone votes and the leading vote getter is submitted to the executive team, which usually adopts the suggestion pretty much unchanged.
  9. This usually adds up to between three and five meetings – usually between three hours and a full day spread over about a month or six weeks. Pretty quick for a restructure.

This is a people power way of dealing with a very difficult and sensitive issue. Motivated, committed and responsible staff typically do a great job of coming up with the best structure. The fact that they are nominated ensures that they are the right people with the right mindset. Besides, they are engaged with the solution. A great idea which everyone hates is of no value and a lesser solution with high levels of engagement is way better. With this approach you get a great solution and high levels of engagement. This week I am facilitating the State Library Victoria through this process. I can’t wait to see the final solution.

So, CEOs and exec teams don’t have to be the oppressors during restructures. Facilitate the staff to do it. All part of the modern trend of “unbossing”. Click here to find out more about our OD solutions.

Andrew Marty