[Updated 12-21-14: thanks to my parents catching the misspelling of “tear” (was tare) and teaching me about heteronyms]

Three and a half years ago, I left my comfortable job at a large multinational advertising agency and joined a small tech start-up.  At the time, with 50 people in one office, AppNexus was the smallest company I had ever worked for.

Flash-forward to today: AppNexus has 750 employees across 22 global offices.

As this year winds down, I find myself reflecting back over my time working in the tech world and the changes that have been required to grow from the start-up I joined in 2011 to the billion dollar company we are today.  Like a snake shedding its skin, we’ve gone through pretty major reorganizations about every six to eight months to facilitate our rapid growth trajectory.

Looking back, one thing I find interesting is that every organizational change – no matter how necessary or beneficial – was painful.  Change is hard!  It’s disruptive and uncertain.  And as the company has gotten bigger they become even more difficult to execute.

There are a variety of reasons why reorganizations are painful, but one of the most significant reasons is because they’re rarely expected.  They always seem to pop up by surprise.  It seems to be closely tied to human nature to just assume that everything will remain similar to how it is today.  However, in a high growth environment, that doesn’t make sense.  Start-ups should really expect – or even (dare I say) schedule – reorganizations to occur about every six months.

Changing more often than every six months is counter-productive because it takes a few months to settle into any new org model.  However, if you wait much longer than six months to make changes, chances are you’re missing out on major growth opportunities.

Also – instead of “reorg’s”, significant organization changes should be called “Organizational Evolutions”.  The word “re-org” implies that you’re fixing something that was wrong.  As if your org was a piece of furniture that you assembled incorrectly, so you have to tear it down and re-build it.  That’s not really the case in a high growth company.  It’s more like you’ve outgrown your organizational model and its time to evolve it.

With Org Evolutions scheduled every six months, it’s still possible to decide to change nothing.  However, everyone should know that no change is the exception to the rule rather than the norm.  In some ways it should be seen as a failure if no changes are necessary when it becomes time for an Org Evolution because that means you haven’t grown fast enough to require change.

Back at my old job in the ad agency world, we went five years without a single reorganization.  The company culture was stale, our revenue was flat, and we weren’t winning much new business.  However, everyone was comfortable.  No one was disrupted by change and everyone knew exactly what to expect each day they came into the office.

Our lack of change crippled us and led us to fall into a declining trajectory.  We needed more change, but were too afraid to disrupt the status quo.  As a result we lost ground to competitors.

As Darwin would say (or maybe he didn’t): “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.”

Org Changes