Learn Today! Online Class - Leading Digital Transformation

Thriving In Dynamic Times: Turning Headwinds Into Tailwinds Part 3: Build Organizational Muscle – Reshaping the Workforce

Build Organizational Muscle

As a good leader, you probably already have a good idea about upgrading the organization and a plan for improving your internal productivity. A crisis, most times, gives you license to accelerate those plans.

No doubt you’ll be given financial targets to hit. Try not to have a knee jerk reaction and just start making cuts across the board. Get the facts quickly (see footnote at the end of this blog post), then make the changes according to some key principles and a longer-range vision and plan that you can articulate.

Use this as an opportunity to intentionally reshape your leadership, culture, workforce pyramids, and talent base. Also, use the crisis as an opportunity to bust the bureaucracy, lean out your processes, rationalize duplicate tooling, shut down or re-platform some of the applications and supported technology, renegotiate some key contracts, and accelerate automation.

The key is to have a plan, know what you would do and use the crisis to advance your strength and capability. If you don’t, you’ll be weaker and hamper the resilience of your enterprise to thrive while the crisis abates. This is about enhancing the productivity, effectiveness, efficiency, and the agility of the organization.

Building Organizational Muscle is a huge topic. There are four major levers that need focus, investment, and orchestration.

  • Workforce Mix & Skills (right size, right shape, right place, right skills, right cost)
  • Operational Efficiency (high-speed software development, velocity, quality, DevOps)
  • Architectural Re-Use (build once & use many, Common Services, Digital Hub/Core)
  • Portfolio Modernization (dealing with the cost, complexity, and risk of existing assets)

You know me. I have so much to say on each one of these, so I’m going to have to cheat and break this into four separate blog posts because each of these topics is so important. This blog post focuses on accelerating the intelligent reshaping of your workforce during a crisis. We’ll address the other levers of productivity and other ways of building organizational muscle in other blog posts coming soon.


Over the decades, and especially today, as we work with many companies and leadership teams, we always find real talent mixed in with the wrong skills, in the wrong mix, in the wrong structure, in the wrong places. Those issues or disconnects are always a reflection of decades of technology hype cycles, financial decisions, crises, leadership turnover, and other factors. The decisions made back in those times seemed to make sense at the time but have created an organization and talent base that needs to be transformed as we modernize our technology, change business models, and head to a more agile and productive enterprise.

The crisis we are in now, like many others before this or to come in the future, can enable you to accelerate reshaping the organization. The goal should be to emerge from the current crisis, and any requirements for cost and headcount reductions, stronger if possible. The productive reshaping of the workforce requires a scalpel, not a machete.

To be surgical or smart about this, I suggest that you go through some logical steps like this:

  • Shape the demand using the “Go Short”(-Term) and “Go Long”(-Term) filters. This is about demand and work and projects… this part is not about the people attached to those projects.
  • Shaping supply (workforce) is a separate thought process but can use similar filters. Think about your talent INDEPENDENT of what specific projects specific people are currently working on. Use a “Go-Short”(-Term) filter to think about keeping people who have the best infrastructure skills, best domain and legacy systems knowledge, getting things done track record, and business savvy and relationships to make sure you have the best team possible for your “urgent response” demand – regardless what those individuals are working on today. With the “Go-Long”(-Term) filter, you’ll know the right size, right shape, right place, right skills, right cost that you’ll need in the Future Vision of the organization. This will tell you who you need to make sure you keep onboard – employed, engaged, and rallied around “surviving” and then “thriving”. The rest of the people are candidates for reductions in force.
  • THEN AND ONLY THEN, it’s time for a draft-like exercise of moving the people to the work. Map and assign the best people you plan to keep in the company with the most “urgent” and most “strategic” demand you intend to continue to serve. This might cause some short-term disruption in people, roles, and assignments changing. But it’ll be worth it, even in the mid-term because you will have shaped the talent and the workforce to be stronger.

Every situation is different, and every corporate culture is unique. So, as a leader, a big part of your role is to figure out what makes sense for your organization at this time and looking forward to your future. To help stimulate your thinking on this topic, I’ll provide just a few of many examples of patterns that might be relevant.

Example: Keeping Legacy Developers and Architects

In my previous blog post, we addressed the critical importance of your legacy systems, especially for the “urgent/tactical business response”, and the developers and engineers that have the skills and knowledge to support and modify them. Two things are true about them. First, their numbers are shrinking as they approach retirement age. Second, you can’t transform to a future without them. Therefore, know who they are, appreciate them and definitely don’t cut or outsource them during the crisis.

Example: Flipping “Upside-Down” Pyramids to Improve Technical Firepower

How many technical people (developers, architects, engineers) do you have relative to the number of people that provide oversight, control, coordination, reporting, and testing? All of the roles mentioned here are necessary in the current environment, but the balance, in many cases, has gotten out of whack over time. It’s not unusual to find a 1:5 ratio of developers to support functions. We would call this an “upside-down” pyramid. This division of labor and therefore, handoffs, began with outsourcing and offshoring, which requires significant coordination, communication, and oversight. Reversing that to 5:1 in the future can actually lower your total labor costs and significantly improve your technical firepower and reduce the bureaucracy.

Example: Creating Modern, “Back to the Future” Teams

The modern revolutions of “Project to Product”, “Enterprise Architecture & Platforms”, “Scaled Agile” (e.g. SAFe), and “DevSecOps” are all great trends in productivity, velocity, quality, and value delivery. They are also part of a “back to the future” journey that takes us back to the first three decades of IT. In those early eras, development teams were expected to plan, architect, develop, test, and maintain their own code and systems. Those same teams also sat with and worked together with their business partners for intimacy and agility, deeply understood their domains, and dynamically coordinated across functions and roles. These days, these principles are even more important than they’ve ever been.

Many of your companies are well down the path on this journey back to those fundamentals. You might have to adjust your thinking on the “right place” as the world moves very quickly to new ways of collaborating remotely with the use of technology. But what’s durable is that you know the value of versatile players, domain or business knowledge, cross-functional collaboration across roles, and intimate interaction with internal business partners and external vendors. Follow that path and those principles. Maybe, now you can and should accelerate that transformation. Those who can’t or won’t operate in this new (and old) way might need to be the ones to go. You should choose to value those who can play this modern game, and you must require this of your workforce going forward.

Make it Happen

Given a major crisis like COVID-19, you have an opportunity to reshape demand, and you are probably going to be required to reduce your workforce by some broad-strokes target number or percentage. You have to comply with any requirements to cut expenses and headcount. But, how you do it and the specific actions you take should be at your discretion. You have the leadership responsibility to be smart, objective, and empathic about how you reshape your team. Things to consider as you make your plans:

  • We recommend you use the approach described above to make the decisions about the best way to surgically target the right skills, right place, right cost, right mix to keep in the organization – and therefore the right people to consider letting go.
  • Try to make a deal with the executive team to go a little deeper, still hit your targets, but create headroom to recruit in some hot skills.
  • Recognize that other companies in your geographic location(s) are probably struggling in this new reality and might be letting very talented, and most importantly right-fit people for you, go very soon. Think of the possible talent (architects, software engineers, domain experts, possible contractor conversions) you can pick up as everyone else is cutting.

You need to deal with your talent base so you can thrive in the future. This approach can leapfrog you past the competition. Those with the best talent will always survive and thrive. If you can keep your head about you and do this intelligently – while others are being broad-based and just cutting without thinking it through – you’ll win. If you come out of the “survive” phase, probably smaller but, considerably stronger, you’ll be ready to continue your strategic transformation as you move into the “thrive” phase that will inevitably come back into focus.

This surgical approach to reshaping your workforce can have both help you hit financial targets and help your organization survive in the short-term while also positioning the company to accelerate your transformation by a year or two. Get your workforce facts together. Align your peers, your team, and your business partners on what’s “urgent response” and what’s “strategic investment” and what the organization should look like in the future. Then, go boldly reshape your workforce.

Author: Charlie Feld, Founder, The Feld Group Institute
Connect with Charlie Feld on LinkedIn

Photo by Anastasia Petrova on Unsplash


Footnote: All of the productivity levers outlined here, and the shaping of demand discussed in our last blog post, require a foundation of facts about IT at your company. It’s critical to have detailed data on your business capabilities, applications, data, technology, people, spending, projects, vendors, and assets – and to be able to correlate, crosstab, drill-down, and analyze that (usually disparate) data together as one whole interconnected, as we call it “Cube”. This is Business Intelligence for IT – every other function has it and knows the value of data for making smart decisions. IT should be no different. More to come on this in a future blog post.

Share This


More to Explore

Express Interest

I'm interested in getting more information about the attending a workshop.

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Express Interest

I'm interested in learning more about The Feld Group Institute Consulting Services.

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Russell Villemez

Affiliate, The Feld Group Institute

Head of Technology Strategy, Dialexa – a Feld Group Institute partner

Highly regarded CTO and change agent with IT strategy and enterprise architecture expertise.

Russell Villemez is an Affiliate with the Feld Group Institute and the head of Technology Strategy at Dialexa, a Technology Research, Design and Creation firm that works with organizations on initiatives such as Operational Transformation, Business Growth, and New Venture Creation.

During 17 years in operational roles and 15 years in consulting roles, Russell has worked across a variety of industries in both executive leadership positions and as a subject matter expert. Russell thrives on the scale and complexity of leading major change agendas in large corporate environments.

Recent consulting clients include AmerisourceBergen, the American Automobile Association, Brinker International, Cubic, Equifax, and Cox Automotive. A common thread is the client’s need for strong leadership during a period of change—whether motivated by acquisitions, spin-offs, competitive pressures, or other factors. Clients also benefit from Russell’s expertise in enterprise architecture, agile development, application portfolio rationalization, technology and architecture strategy, as well as business strategy and commercial software product development.

Recognized as a versatile IT executive, adept at solving complex problems with innovative solutions, Russell’s capabilities and achievements span a continuum from business-strategy formation to hands-on IT solution development. His extensive career achievements include pioneering the first use of relational databases in high-volume transaction systems in the ‘80s, applying voice recognition DSPs in public intelligent network services for consumer markets in the ‘90s, and leading large-scale adoptions of open systems, object technology, and middleware frameworks in complex business environments, often in advance of commercially available software products.

Prior to joining Dialexa, Russell served at HP as Enterprise Services Chief Technology Officer for the Americas, leading a global capability for embedded Account CTOs in large enterprises. Russell began his career at Accenture, where he first crafted his consultative problem-solving approach, later honed at A.T. Kearny and the Feld Group. Russell’s deep telecom experience is built upon numerous director and enterprise architect positions at AT&T, Bell Atlantic, Telstra, US West, Pacific Bell, and Sprint, and as V.P. and CIO for WebLink Wireless.

Russell has a BS in Business Administration from Louisiana State University and an MBA from Vanderbilt University. In his spare time, Russell participates in amateur auto racing, and is a driving instructor with the Porsche Club of America.