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Redundancy; why, how and avoiding it!

What, why write something on this topic? I feel that somebody needs to talk about this and I have wanted to for many years! As an employee of an organisation, it's a difficult topic to talk about openly. This topic within organisations is similar to discussing politics, sex and religion amongst adults. Many people have lots of private thoughts, these are often not discussed, and there is limited opportunity for shared understanding. Note this is understanding and not agreement.

This blog is a perspective based on decades of experience, either watching and learning or leading these initiatives across half a dozen industries. Most technology executives today need to build new capabilities or integrate shadow capabilities to their organisation. There is often minimal budget to do this, plus an overlapping of the existing capability within the existing technology function. Sometimes the capability is a legacy and no longer current; there is a difference between technical currency and capability.

Unfortunately, right-sizing organisations for the future will be a necessary skill due to the dynamic nature of the industry for any executive.

Let's wind back; I first commenced working in the late eighties (not completing high school, more on this later), in the first part of my career I observed two waves of redundancy periods in the early 1990s and just after 2000. Seeing both of these periods offered some learnings of why some of these changes went better than others;

  • A person is not be made redundant, a role is, and unfortunately, this implicates the person in the role. Organisations who do this well remind everyone of this at the initial planning, during and end of the process. People directly impacted must be told that have not done anything wrong, they are not being dismissed, and it's their role that is no longer required

  • The implications within an organisation post redundancy are varied, the dip in motivation can be longer than desired if people are treated poorly, information is limited and there is not a compelling sense of meaningful work to progress. Fear of further reductions is not the appropriate motivation

  • Ideally undertake this activity once every 24 months, don't assume you will have the luxury of tweaking here and there over 12 to 18 months. Generally, you probably need to go deeper than you potentially think you may need to, there are opportunities in doing this, more on this later! Further, the tweaking approach has people walking on eggshells, and they may focus on survival rather than doing great work. Great work on occasion involves debate and disagreement. Sometimes this is with senior leaders; people are less likely to debate if they are in survival mode

  • Support for leaders, this is to be provided beyond HR, it's also beyond the odd text message and email from a colleague saying "this is the right thing to do, good luck and I am here if you need me." The words are nice; however, they are not supporting. Support should be amongst a peer group; people have undertaken similar activity and can talk through scenarios. Sharing experiences is an opportunity to improve the experience for the employees directly impacted and the broader team. It also creates confidence for the leader in bringing part of themselves to conversations; being less robotic and demonstrating a genuine empathy to everyone

  • Executive Assistants (EA) also need to be supported, an exceptional EA is emotionally invested within the organisation, and to the person they support. Additionally, they are likely to know prior to many those who will be impacted and probably know these people as well. Don't assume you know of the type of support that suits, ask your EA

  • Every organisation has slightly different processes and support available. Sometimes the support offered to impacted employees is optional based on executive discretion. Make this support available to employees (such as outplacement); sometimes executives choose not to make this available to employees due to the cost. There is a higher cost in not offering this. Potentially delaying the impacted employee moving through what is next for them. Further, they may talk to their colleagues about the situation. They endeavour to help but are not qualified. Distracting both parties and possibly the perception of how much people are valued by those remaining.

The above learnings remain relevant today; I see my clients trip up when making changes. How can you imagine a better organisation for the future with fewer roles? I developed the rule of "the thirds". This approach has been tried and tested across several technology organisations in various industries.

Analyse roles with these criteria;

  • Technically critical; roles that support key technologies however avoid ring-fencing multiple roles, a lot of technology is now automated, and this presents opportunities to rationalise roles where there are multiple

  • Leadership critical; this is not about senior leaders but key leadership roles within the organisation. These roles may not manage people; they could offer essential thought leadership or capability (i.e. Commercial Manager, Business Analyst, Risk and Controls Manager, etc.)

  • Additional roles; these are the roles that are involved in the work; however, not critical to the work. They "swim with" initiatives rather than being "key" to them; they potentially increase the drag on efforts through additional conversations that offer limited value. Their involvement might be due to their legacy technology knowledge rather than current knowledge; it is systemic rather than critical.

Why the "rule of thirds"? After completing this analysis across several organisations in different industries and challenging leadership teams to align their roles (not their people), there was roughly a third in each area, and this is how the rule was developed.

As you embark on this activity, go deeper than you think need to. When analysing the possible roles to exit, consider this as an opportunity to improve the capability of the organisation. Removing a third of roles at one time is challenging however removing 10 to 20% of roles and replacing the remaining 10 to 20% with the right roles is like lightening the load and adding a turbo!

If possible, swell the organisation with the new roles before removing the roles that are no longer required. Also completing this within the first half of the financial year generally results in current year savings. If this is not an option, project-based work and items on a team's Agile backlog may need to be paused for a period. Based on my professional experience, other Executives across the business are supportive of slowing down of a short period to go faster later.

As an employee here is what you can do to avoid the probability of redundancy;

  • Technical currency, don't become confused with technical capability. Technical currency is what is and will be current for the next period. How can this be incorporate into your role, if it is not already

  • Leadership capability, what is your gift? Find this and cultivate it, make yourself that person that everybody wants on their project or in their Agile scrum

  • Learning, nobody is ever complete, continuously look for learning experiences. I didn't complete high school; however, I went back to night school for my under and postgraduate studies. Every year I prioritise some form of professional learning that is an extension to my current role

  • Organisational knowledge, at one of my previous organisations, there was a person who was developing software on a legacy technology; however, also had wonderful operational knowledge. This knowledge became the currency for their future role, they de-invested in the technology and lead other developers on another platform, it was inspiring to watch and a great example to others

  • Treat everybody as you would like to be treated. It feels good to be welcomed by others; it's even better to be included in many things due to the type of person you are. Make yourself that person that everybody wants to spend time with. You can then evolve your role.

Redundancy is a complicated topic; it should be something discussed more often within leadership teams and their people. By considering this more regularly, thoughts will evolve, and more quality actions will be implemented. These actions are likely to reduce the need for radical transformation, enable more frequent transitions through active management, creating a future-oriented organisation.


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