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Paralysed by constant restructuring
Why are modern companies always reorganising, and how do they ever get any work done?
Written in my South Wales hotel and dispatched to via a password-free, wide-open 40Mbps wi-fi service.

Reorganisation has always been endemic in industry, government and the public sector. But 40 years ago such upheavals were spaced at intervals of about 10 years, so you could actually get some work done. But progressively the timeframe has shortened. Today I encounter companies where continual reorganisation seems to be their primary activity.

How do employees achieve anything, and how do companies survive these periods of low productivity? In the extreme, it seems as though they employ more students and interns, while letting service levels and customer care slip. Yet the truth is perhaps more complex.

In a world dominated by technology, the speed of connection, automation and reaction, we see chaos reign supreme. Small decisions and changes can have a huge impact, while the business landscape is no longer stable.

My best analogy is that managers and their teams are like mountain climbers kitting up for a grand ascent. They have all the right gear for the terrain and set off full of confidence. But they soon realise the weather is changing and the mountain has altered shape beneath their feet. They now have the wrong equipment, team members and formation. And so they set about reorganising.

Although they repeat this process many times, they don't seem to see the underlying problem. They simply continue to re-equip and reform to no purpose because they never come close to reaching a summit.

Like it or not the blight of reorganisation is upon us and will not go away. It is amplified by the rigidity of hierarchy and control-freak management, the underuse and misuse of technology, and lack of trust between managers and teams. This situation was epitomised by several expressions of frustration I heard recently:

  • Example one
    "I'm a mobile worker, I can work from anywhere any time, but my manager wants me in the office, nine to five, every day. He just doesn't get it - I need to work from home, hotel and customer site, but he has to see me every day - and says out-of-office work doesn't count."
  • Example two
    "When I was a young man I would go to my manager with a problem and he would help me solve it because he had done my job in the past. He understood and he was capable. Today my manager asks me to write a report because he is clueless and understands nothing of what I do."
  • Example three
    "I have the wrong technology, and we have the wrong working practices for the business we are addressing today let alone the future. But the IT department calls the shots. They control the business, they say what goes, not the people doing the job, not the people facing the real problems."

There you have it: my very specific personal top 10! I can imagine everyone having their own subset and definitions, and if I were to extend the list, then at number 11 it would be multi-player gaming followed by distributed sensor networks, networked robotics and cybernetics, plus of course new interactive industries reliant upon distributed creativity, production and delivery, and much much more!

If you get a spare moment it is worth musing: just what would you do with 1Gbps symmetric broadband?

Fact is these situations result in good and talented people leaving a business for more enlightened pastures. The culprit organisations gradually spiral down towards an unenviable end point with a lot of pain and disillusionment on the way.

The good news is that there is a new breed of operation abroad that does understand the problem and adopts the right approach. Instead of looking like a regimented army of Red Coats, all acting and thinking as one, they appear chaotic and act as a guerrilla army.

In such organisations we find the chaos of creativity and change running neck and neck with strict process and hierarchy, supported by appropriate technology and practice. People get to choose their own kit and apps, managers trust them to work when or wherever suits them, and productivity overrides visible attendance.

Chaotic markets, fast-changing technology, products and demand dictate a new fluidity of people and thinking. Old and rigid practices really are the kiss of death.