Lessons on Change … Don’t Change?

Reorg Rethink

To reorganize or not to reorganize (or “reorg” as often shortened in corporate speak) is a typical question on the minds of those who want to bring change to an organization.

Change or Not? Reorganization Rethink - Mike Russell

On the surface, it may seem like an easy answer … reorg.

However, the answer is not that simple and depends on the specific situation.

In Robert M. Gates’ new book, A Passion for Leadership: Lessons on Change and Reform from Fifty Years of Public Service, Mr. Gates recommends not changing the organization to bring about change.

I agree and disagree.

I agree with his view that too often, changing the organization chart is confused with real change. “Where” people work in the organization is only one component to consider along with the “how” of work. I also agree with his view that reorgs can be enormously distracting and wasteful.

His summation is to leave the organizational structure alone “unless absolutely necessary.”

I disagree. Ignoring structure can be as bad as ignoring how work is done. Indeed, the structure is part of the design of how the work is done and therefore a necessary part of the change strategy.

The real issue, as I pointed out in Wrong Until Right, is that most organizations are designed for stability, not change. This means that yes, for most organizations and the people who work in them, reorganizations are considered a bane of humanity because yes, they are wasteful, ineffective, and particularly distracting as people wonder about their work futures.  They are often designed and dictated “from above” with little input from those doing the work.

However, the point is not to dismiss reorganizations. The point is to consider rearchitecting the organization so that change in general – and reorgs in particular – are considered part of “normal” work as needed so the organization can adapt. Reorgs still incur a cost but the cost is not wasteful and significantly less than in stability-oriented organizations. The return on the investment is also much higher.

“Normal” reorgs also often take quite a bit of time, reducing the adaptability of the organization. Reorgs in a change-architected organization are much faster, further increasing their effectiveness and reducing distraction that much further.

To be fair to Mr. Gates, government organizations are particularly difficult to rearchitect structurally for change and in some cases, may not be worth the time and effort as he noted. However, that does not mean that readers outside of the government should take the advice “as is.”

So, this begs the question: How do you architect for change?

In addition to the guidance in Wrong Until Right, a future insight will provide a surprising way to put an old tool to new use.


  • Consider your organization:
    • How often are there reorganizations?
    • How are reorganizations viewed by “management”?
    • By the workers?
    • By unions, if your organization has them?
    • Are reorganizations fast or slow?
    • How is reorganization effectiveness measured?
  • What could be done in your organization to help make reorganizations more effective?
  • What can you personally do as a leader to make reorganizations more effective?


By Mike Russell