Your Position has been Eliminated
I’ve said this phrase and I’ve had it said to me.
I’ve also been on both sides of the phrase, “management agrees with your idea and wants to implement the change immediately.”
Implementing a Pivot
Every company faces market dynamics and needs to pivot quickly to adapt. A “pivot” can be a change in strategy, a redefinition of product features, a shift in market focus, or a redeployment of resources to a different project. The faster and more effectively they can pivot to better strategies or more valued products, compared to their competitors, the better their outcome. A successful pivot must be customer-driven, holistic, and well-communicated. More importantly, it must be supported by employees.
There is ample discussion of employee change management based on the premise that employees might be frustrated and resistant to change if they are blind-sided by it. The difference between the two scenarios suggested by the title highlights the key — involve employees in the process.
I’ve participated in successful pivots in product groups and service groups.
The key decision factor for the pivot of the product group wasn’t a revenue growth target or a profit margin, but the presence of customer pull. Did customers perceive enough value in the product line that they pulled new and better products — rather than us continuing to push? This was the question we asked of our stakeholders. We had met the financial metrics but my trusted colleagues in sales concluded that we hadn’t resonated with customers. The team recommended that we pivot to adjacent roles or support for more impactful products, which management wholeheartedly supported.
The key decision factor for the pivot of the service groups was also customer pull vs push. We used the “Big Rocks” metaphor (“big rocks” are essential or high-priority items that are critical for success, as compared to lesser priority “pebbles” which you can survive without). Was our service product a big rock or a pebble to stakeholders? Literally, we asked our internal customers: if we stopped providing this, would they dedicate their own groups’ resources toward creating that same service?
As an internal group, we don’t explicitly get paid for our services; there’s no negotiated price on it. If stakeholders wouldn’t spend their own budget to resource it themselves (or hire contractors), then that tells me how little they value the service. Or if they would resource it differently, then that’s a clue as to what aspect they value and what they don’t.
In parallel, we noted whether our service served most internal product groups or just one. For one of our services, only one group benefited from us which resulted in their agreement to absorb the headcount into their organization — there was sufficient value. For another service, it was deemed sufficiently valuable to multiple groups so no pivot took place. And others didn’t measure up to “big rock” status.
For the pebbles, my task was to provide visibility of other ways my team could make a greater impact. I asked them to recommend the best pivot. The risk was that my team might think I already had an answer in mind and they might try to say what they thought I wanted to hear. They needed to trust that I hadn’t made a conclusion yet. There needs to be psychological safety for this sort of dialog. They had to believe they had agency and that my management chain would honor their conclusions — so I needed the same trust from my boss! As the group’s director, I had a little more visibility about other groups’ needs and strategies. But my team knew the technical details and could judge the potential for success better than I could. In this case, the team chose to pivot to another group director that needed their valued skills. They stayed intact as a team, felt more empowered, and ultimately made a greater impact.
The Need for Trust
Another task I had was to build trust and transparency. Empowerment cannot happen without trust so I needed to respect each of my team member’s place in their career cycle while remaining completely transparent. Early-career employees are often eager for change and want an opportunity to learn new skills while needing security and ongoing guidance, akin to apprenticeship in their craft. They’ll respond positively to a pivot if teammates they trust reinforce it.
Mid-career employees, on a technical track, provide that apprenticeship and reinforcement but are often more resistant to change and quickly spot gaps in the plan. What worked for me was to explain the criteria that will be used to judge the strategy, as above. Then let them work on the details. Trust them. In much the same way, mid-career employees on a managerial track have outsized ownership in the product, influence the work process, and help reinforce cultural norms. They also provide the underappreciated bridge between corporate strategy and the ground-level implementation — how strategy gets translated into tangible output — so they will be key to a successful pivot.
My suspicion is that this is the reason start-ups can pivot so quickly compared to bulkier established companies. In start-ups, there may be no hierarchical layers between strategy and implementation. It takes longer to transmit through larger companies and relies on mid-level managers who may not be adequately trained (or necessarily skilled) for this task.
Late-career employees are not just senior managers; they exist at every level of the organization. As staff engineers or mid-level managers who didn’t ascend higher, they’ve gained wisdom and the trust of younger engineers. They’ve likely seen successful pivots and failed ones. They can be of great value supporting a shift in strategy that necessitates a rapid pivot if they are involved; a barrier if they are not. Honor that wisdom. They are also quite well aware of their own changing role and purpose in the organization. Respect that. Granted, some need to be “eased out the door,” according to Linda Duxbury, a professor at Carleton University in Ottawa, but many would love to take on coaching and mentoring roles where their whole job is knowledge transfer. It’s better than having that knowledge walk out the door.
The Bottom Line
Of course, there are times when it’s not about a pivot. Inevitably, the finance department points to the magnitude of the salary associated with the company’s headcount. Massive economic downturns and shareholder fiduciary responsibilities dictate that something needs to be done. Here again, in my career, I’ve been on both sides of the table. In one case, the employees kept their jobs but sacrificed a portion of their full salary (another example). In most other cases, large numbers of employees lost their jobs and the company lost a bit of respect from those that remained. Any sense of empowerment suffered.
Involvement leads to empowerment. Empowered teams learn to assess their impact against the customer-perceived value and adapt accordingly. Teams that learn, with trust and transparency from their management, make a successful company.