Experience has shown that a transformation towards organizational agility is a full-contact sport. Therefore, I am always impressed with audacious leaders who want to shake off the status quo and launch initiatives to transform their business.
Regardless if it is a transformation of their organizational culture, or towards business agility or a digital transformation, the impact on the way they conduct their business will be profound. I am always inspired by these courageous leaders and privileged to support them throughout their journey.
The upside of the bruises, scars, and gray hair accumulated along the way is called experience. After years of helping executives transform their business, I’d like to share some of my experience with leaders who are about to embark on an organizational transformation towards more business agility. In the process, I will reveal the seldom talked-about “hidden side” of transformation initiatives.
If you haven’t undertaken such an initiative before, you may want to know what’s coming! The road ahead is a bumpy one… (but not an impossible one!)
The subtle (and not-so-subtle) reactions to organizational transformation
The beginning of a transformation initiative is met with high hopes of benefits that await us and motivation is in high gear, however, the brutal truth will quickly stare you in the face.
You may not be aware of this, but the truth of the matter is…
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No matter how difficult and challenging you envisioned your organizational transformation to be, it will be much harder and much longer than you originally thought.
The initial timelines will be exceeded, deliverables won’t meet expectations and you will have to repeat the justifications for such a change, over, and over… So brace yourself for a long and often difficult journey.
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In order for your organizational transformation to succeed, You, the leader, will have to be the one who transforms first.
In most organizations, people replicate the behaviours they observe. If you want your executive committee and their teams to follow, you will first have to demonstrate the expected behaviours so others can follow and replicate them. Launching an organizational transformation is not something you do “to the business”, it’s a project that touches everyone “in the business” – and that often starts with the leader of the transformation.
The onus is on you to prove the transformation will indeed bring the expected benefits.
The responsibility to prove the success of the transformation is on your shoulders. Everyone will assess your plan and it needs to be flawless (in their eyes). As the leader of the transformation, you need to maintain a perfect record along each step of the process in order to keep the project moving along. By opposition, the resisters and the naysayers simply need to point out the flaws and mistakes to slow down progress. Be ready for some heavy lifting!
If it’s not already clear, you will be under scrutiny all the time.
People (mostly those resisting the change) will watch your every move in the hopes of finding inconsistencies, weaknesses, and flaws. Therefore, be ready to live under a constant spotlight.
The transformation will reveal the weaknesses in your operational processes and will dissipate the smoke and mirrors that are currently masking low performers.
You need to be ready and willing to fix the operational processes and manage the low performers, otherwise, your transformation will run into a brick wall. An organizational transformation is similar to a home improvement project in that you will have to knock down walls (sometimes all the way to the foundation) before you can start to build up to something better. As such, the bigger the delay in fixing the processes and the people issues, the longer the delay to reap the benefits of your transformation. A transformation is always akin to significant changes in operational processes.
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People will resist, kicking and screaming, but remember: It’s nothing personal.
Until people fully understand what changes you are looking to bring about (see the section about communication) and feel they have more to gain than to lose (see the section about making the transformation appealing), they will resist. Actually, it will be quite subtle! People will voice an opinion without trying to understand what changes are actually required. They may feign agreement with the proposed changes and work behind the scenes to sabotage it or they may simply drag their feet and maintain the status quo until you run out of energy. Resistance is to be expected, therefore a strong change management strategy is required to support the transformation.
People will look, will find, and will gladly point out any flaws in your plan.
Let’s face it, change is difficult. So people’s natural reaction will be to look for (and find) the flaws in the proposed plan for transformation. Rather than suggest improvements to the plan, they will take note of any flaws and eventually, they will tell you about it… and will be more than happy to come bragging “I told you so” when the flaws do materialize.
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The people who jump on board early are worth gold.
Actually, the early adopters are worth more than gold. Many of them will turn out to be true believers. So it is imperative that you do everything required to keep these true believers on your side. Listen to them, ask for their input, get them involved, and most importantly don’t stop supporting them. The early adopters are the first ones who will face resistance and have to navigate the obstacles. If they are not supported by the leader of the transformation initiative, they will run out of energy and once that happens, your transformation project will slow down.
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You will spend way too much time trying to convince the naysayers.
Let’s face it, it is human nature to want to bring everybody on board when it comes to organizational transformation. Unfortunately, unless you have unlimited time and resources, this is an impossible task! The “late majority” and the “laggards” are not interested in the transformation initiative and as such will resist. Therefore you will have to be focused and prioritize where you invest your time and energy. You must ensure that all is done to communicate, explain, and answer questions with regards to the organizational transformation. Experience has shown us that leaders spend too much time focussing on the late majority and the laggards and not enough time on the innovators and early adopters, and that’s a huge mistake! Let’s put it this way, would you rather invest 10 hours of your time to get 1,000 transformation points or invest 1,000 hours to get 10 transformation points? Make sure to use your time and energy wisely.
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You will constantly be confronted with critical decisions about “key” employees.
How valuable are the knowledge and the expertise of the individuals who are resisting the proposed changes? I’ve seen it so many times, organizations are afraid to lose precious knowledge and experience and consequently, they tolerate and invest too much time and energy in trying to bring certain employees on board because of the knowledge and experience they possess. Once again, before the situation arises, make sure to determine how much time and energy you are willing to invest before making that important decision of moving forward without these “key” employees.
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People will use “critical” priorities to justify their lack of involvement in the transformation.
This is especially damaging at the executive level where those with political savviness will pretend to be too busy with other critical organizational priorities deterring them from actively contributing to the transformation. While it may be true in some cases, you will need to make sure your executive team demonstrates active involvement in your organizational transformation. Employees throughout the organization get insight into expected, acceptable behaviours from the executives of the firm. As such, if your executive team doesn’t actively participate in the organizational transformation, people will interpret that to mean that the transformation isn’t really important and they will modify their behaviours accordingly – meaning, they won’t give it much attention.
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The first 12 months are critical.
Avoid lengthy delays in making decisions and executing plans once the decisions have been taken. When it comes to transforming your organization, time is not on your side. Chances are new organizational priorities will continue to emerge which could lead you to lose interest in the transformation – especially if the project is more difficult than anticipated. Time is precious so you need to make as much progress as possible during the first year. Needless to say, you also want to be faster than the resisters. If at first, they aren’t organized, they will be by the end of year one.
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The consultants that help you will constantly be under attack.
If you are working with external consultants, people will highlight their weaknesses, criticize their approach and even attack them personally. The combat will no longer be about the transformation, it will become about the consultants because it is much easier to get rid of the consultants than it is to stop the transformation initiative endorsed by the CEO. Make sure to support your consultants. They are your “innovators” and will do what is required to make your transformation successful. Without your support, they will no longer be able to support you and your transformation. This is the starting motion towards a downward spiral.
Make sure the future state is attractive.
People need to understand and envision that they will better off after the transformation than they were before. Your role is to create and communicate an enticing future state vision that is inviting to people. Show them the reasons to believe in the value of the organizational transformation and their resistance will start to dissipate.
You will have to communicate, communicate, and communicate!
Communication is always an issue when it comes to transformation. On one hand, you will feel that this is all you are talking about. On the other hand, people won’t seem to know or to understand what is going on. Expect to become tired of repeating the same messages over and over again – but this is actually what is required to be done.
There is no such thing as an organizational transformation.
An organizational transformation is actually the individual transformation of each person within the organization. Although it would be easier to transform entire groups and departments at a time, you will need to approach the transformation by targeting each individual. Similar to an election, you will need to get each vote. There is no such thing as a single decision maker.
In summary, there are numerous obstacles to any transformation…..the key is to be aware, be prepared to the extent possible, be flexible to change and adapt! Achieving success is possible and actually very beneficial (but that is for a later article)…