Sunday, June 5, 2016

What a company-wide "reorg" looks like in a flat, manager-less company

Working at a bunch of companies over the years has given me a lot of interesting perspective. I really enjoy trying to describe how processes in top-down companies can be done in non-hierarchical ("no boss" or self-organizing) companies. Let's try to describe, say to a hierarchical company employee, what a company-wide "reorg" could look like in a no-manager company.

I first heard the word "reorg" in relation to how Microsoft periodically reorganizes its corporate structure to "better align the company to new corporate-level goals and strategies". (That's a joke.) Issuing a company-wide reorg in a hierarchical company is very much a executive-level decision. It's a top-down directive that the company intentionally follows, like a military maneuver. It just happens, you know about it as an employee, and you must go with the flow.

But what does a deep reorg actually look like in a non-hierarchical, manager-less company? The CEO can't just come cruising in totally reorg'ing the place. (Remember, the CEO is not your boss in companies like this!) Such a traumatic "mass adjustment of resources" is just not in the culture. (Small-scale "horse trades" occur all the time in manager-less companies. I'm talking about a deep, planned reorganization that impacts a large chunk of the company.)

Well, here's one way you can re-org a manager-less company. This approach assumes the company actor(s) attempting to pull the reorg off have the power to form new teams and make internal/external hires.

First, you need to form a small team around some new product or technology. Do it just below the radar (internally). It needs to show promise and be a rising-star type project. You should work to get as much strategic press exposure about this new team's work as possible.

Next, you start internally recruiting and externally hiring for that new team. You optimize the external hiring process to streamline it, to accept some candidates as contractors (who you may eventually hire) and some as immediate full-time employees. For the internal recruits, you only hire those internal developers who are the most passionate about the new project's goals or its technology. Hiring on the new team must be done carefully, because it's ultimately part of a greater company-wide sorting and reorganization process.

If the new project becomes large enough, it creates a rift of sorts in the organization. The new team gets more power and size over time. An entire ecosystem of other friendly teams can form around the new team. The company self-organizes itself into a market of teams around the new project, and a block of other "deprecated teams" who may not be aligned with the reorg's goals.

These deprecated teams can be reduced in size by letting go of internal developers over time. Anyone the company doesn't want long-term can be quickly moved onto a deprecated team. To minimize shock to the deprecated team's product (which may need to remain live), the team can fall back to possibly cheaper external contractors as it internally shrinks. Ultimately, the product can be put on long-term life support with minimal internal cost.

Now, if you are a developer in a company like this, and you want to survive the reorg, you should be asking yourself right about now "am I on a deprecated team?". If you are, you better learn the company's new religion quickly or you may be pushed out. (Or, you need to visibly work on background projects that support post-reorg goals or needs.)

If you are a senior team member in this scenario, and you want your team to not become deprecated, you need to quickly figure out how to transition your product into the "new era" so it remains relevant.