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6 steps to lead your engineering team through organizational change
Change at scale is painful. But with the right planning and communication, you can help your engineers rise to the challenge.
Phillipa Rodney is an Engineering Manager at Sanity.io, the platform for structured content that lets teams build exceptional digital experiences. In addition to being an award-winning Engineering Manager and Chartered Engineer, Phillipa is a dedicated coach and mentor. She is the founder of Black Leaders in Engineering and has volunteered with numerous organizations to help others achieve their career goals.
Your company is going through organizational change: structural, strategic, people-oriented, or process-oriented. Whatever the nature of the change, it sends ripples of fear and uncertainty through every level of the organization.
As an engineering leader, you likely have your own anxieties about where you fit within these new structures. At the same time, you know your engineers will look to you for clarity and support. This is a challenging role to occupy, but one that enables you to have a lasting positive impact on the direction of your company.
In my experience leading teams through organizational change, I've learned that mess is inevitable – and it's not my job to downplay or avoid it. My job is to embrace our new reality and create a plan to help my team adapt.
Today I'll cover 6 steps to lead motivated and productive engineering teams through organizational change:
- Create a plan for your team
- Adapt your leadership style
- Communicate business goals
- Break down goals into actionable steps
- Manage expectations internally and externally
- Believe in what you're doing
Create a plan for your team
To set your team up for success during organizational change, start by creating a plan for how they will support the new organizational goals. This helps to reframe the change: it's not something that is happening to your team, but something they are enabling.
Having a tangible roadmap helps to assuage anxiety about the future. It also builds trust with engineers by showing that you are committed to helping them thrive.
To create your team's plan, start with the high-level company goal. Ask yourself:
- How does this goal involve my team?
- What is our plan and timeline for supporting this goal?
- What does each team member need to do to execute this plan?
One of the most challenging aspects of this process is prioritizing your work. There can be immense pressure to hit the ground running during organizational changes. But when you jump into getting things done without weighing priorities, you end up wasting valuable time and resources.
The reality is that you need strong foundations to enable large-scale change. Invest time in setting these foundations. It may feel like you're moving slower in the short term, but it will accelerate your work in the long term.
If leadership has specific requests for your team, make sure that they align with high-level goals. You don't want to work on things that don't matter.
Once you've set your team's priorities and written down a plan, you'll be much better equipped to field questions and help engineers process the change.
Adapt your leadership style
As you discuss organizational change with your team, there are a few realistic obstacles to consider:
- Your engineers are likely anxious about the future
- The trust between leadership and engineers may have eroded
- Your new expectations for the team may not align with past expectations
To tackle these challenges, you'll want a leadership style that balances empathy with direct communication. Does your current leadership style incorporate these qualities? If not, you may need to adapt your approach to meet the needs of your team.
At every stage of organizational change, your team needs to feel that you hear and support them. While showing empathy won't necessarily relieve anxiety about the future, it will build trust between you and your newly-configured team.
Being empathetic doesn't mean avoiding uncomfortable conversations. In fact, lack of clarity around changing goals and expectations will prevent your team from adapting successfully. Depending on your management style, you may need to make a conscious effort to be more transparent and ensure your team has the level of structure and clarity they need.
Let's say your organization is undergoing rapid growth. To meet business goals, leadership needs engineers to step up in a new way. While engineers are used to closing tickets in a highly predictable environment, they are now expected to pitch ideas and make high-level decisions.
As a leader, I typically lean towards a coaching style. This often involves helping people reach their own conclusions through open-ended questions. But when a team is adapting to new expectations – and needs to do so quickly – I've found that direct communication with more explicit guidance is most effective. Here's what that can sound like:
- "You own this project now. That means you'll need to make xyz decisions within this timeframe."
- "To make xyz decisions, who do you need to talk to?"
- "If you don't get the answers you need, how can you proactively follow up?
Through empathetic and direct communication, you can help your team to understand what it looks like to push themselves and take ownership of projects. Over time, engineers will feel increasingly empowered to think for themselves.
Communicate business goals
Communicating your plan in a direct and empathetic style is crucial to helping your team reorient. But to maintain motivation, it's equally important to share the business goals driving organizational change.
This communication should be continuous and encompass all areas of your team's work. That means that as you introduce and work through your plan, you connect every step to a business outcome. When your team feels connected to a higher purpose in the company, they will feel more motivated to embrace change.
Discussing business outcomes with engineers also creates opportunities to gather feedback. As an EM navigating organizational change, you need to have the confidence to make decisions on behalf of your team – but many of these decisions can and should be informed by their input.
Involving engineers in the process of organizational change helps to build a culture of transparency and trust. In my experience, this team buy-in is invaluable. It helps everyone work together more effectively and find enjoyment in the process – even when things get messy.
Break down goals into actionable steps
When you present organizational goals to your team, the prospect of working towards them can feel daunting. That's why it's important to not only create team-level goals, but also break them down into actionable steps on a clear timeline.
Ideally, the team-level plan you've presented includes some of these steps. However, you can add new steps as the plan unfolds. These steps can look like sub-goals within project work, but may also include:
- Process improvements within the team
- Personal development opportunities
Knowing your team's strengths and growth areas will help you to decide what these steps should look like. For example, does your team have the technical and professional skills to support organizational change? Are there inefficiencies in your team's workflow? Within your plan to achieve larger goals, outline steps to grow your team's skills and improve processes.
Prioritizing personal development also encourages buy-in. When you turn organizational change into a development opportunity, engineers will feel motivated to support your plan and grow with your organization.
It's easy to lose sight of your purpose and feel demotivated by organizational changes. However, when you break down big goals into actionable steps, you ensure that engineers always have something to work towards. Hitting small goals and experiencing success frequently will help your team to stay invested in the plan.
Manage expectations internally and externally
When a company undergoes organizational change, there is often a drop in communication. It's easy to see why:
- New management layers increase and complicate reporting lines
- High-stakes changes are being made, so more decisions happen behind closed doors to avoid scrutiny
I understand why leadership can become less communicative during organizational change. But I don't think this approach sets people up for success. To meet business goals, you need to be transparent with the people who are doing the work.
Maintaining clear communication during organizational change is no small task. It requires you to proactively manage expectations within your team and with leadership. This is where you'll need to flex your leadership skills as an empathetic and direct communicator.
Managing expectations internally
Managing expectations with your team should happen at every stage of the process we've discussed today. From the moment you communicate your team-level plan, be explicit about the goals engineers need to hit, why, and when.
As I explained earlier, it's important not to assume that engineers know how to hit these goals. This doesn't mean condescending to your team or micromanaging their work. It means that there is a gap between old and new expectations, and you need to help your team build a bridge.
When you take the time to provide engineers with a toolkit and actionable steps to move forward, they will build confidence and adapt to change more quickly. This will empower engineers to exercise greater autonomy and initiative in the future.
Managing expectations externally
As an EM, you may feel like organizational change is out of your control. But I encourage you to embrace your role as an advocate for your team by setting expectations with your peers and higher-ups.
When you share concerns sooner rather than later, you provide leadership with valuable insights that can shape high-level goals and timelines. Let's say your team won't be able to hit a certain metric. Communicate this to leadership in advance, and discuss the reasons behind it:
- What is preventing you from hitting this metric?
- What do you need to get back on track?
- Can we meet the business need in a different way?
If leadership doesn't have visibility into these challenges early on, you may miss out on opportunities to change course or secure more resources for engineering. Communicating your team's needs builds trust with leadership and yields more effective collaboration between technology and business teams.
Believe in what you're doing
This might seem obvious, but I think it's worth stating. It makes a huge difference when you believe in the plan you are sharing with your team. If you believe that your plan will accelerate business goals and help engineers reach their full potential, you'll be more passionate about it. That will boost your team's morale and help them adapt to the changes more successfully.
If you are struggling to develop a plan you believe in, take a step back. Ask yourself: do I have the tools to succeed? Leverage any professional networks you can to learn how others have led teams through organizational change. You may have insights to share with them as well.
The more confident you feel in your plan, the more willing your team will be to embrace and mature with change. This doesn't mean your plan will be perfect. As I've said, change at scale is painful. But when you establish a baseline of motivation and trust, your team can grow to support organizational change and find joy in the process