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25 January 2018

The challenge of transformation

Ready-made solutions evade us all, but some principles underpin the successful organisational transformation. 

Change has joined the: “the only things certain in life are death and taxes” phrase. Consider the number and variety of changes we experience daily. In business, we can reinterpret this to mean all competitive advantages are transient. 

With intensifying competition, an organisation’s capacity to successfully transform becomes key to competing, achieving objectives and long-term sustainability. The process of transformation does not revolve solely around people, it also needs to consider systems. Do they support/impede transformation, and can they be redesigned to improve the chances of success? 

Why transform?

Before transforming, in line with Simon Sine’s thinking, , “always start with why”. Understand and have a compelling reason to transform and ensure those who are affected by it, understand the reason, is key.   Daily we encounter new, often contradictory information to be grasped and acted on – we’re distracted. We crave change, unable to ignore the next alert or feed headline. 

Paul Valery described our (mis)behaviour when he said: "Interruption, incoherence, surprise are the ordinary conditions of life. They have even become real needs for many people, whose minds are no longer fed…by anything but sudden changes and constantly renewed stimuli. We can no longer bear anything that lasts.” 

This insight is unusual, yet the message is profound: we seek change, even though we struggle to cope with it. It mesmerises us. We can’t concentrate, we want to be distracted. 

I often read articles that insist disruption is everywhere, yet many businesses are stagnant, systems remain outdated, and outcomes are mostly predictable. Transformation is one of those diachotomies of life  - we want it – but fight it.  But, we yearn different results, so we need perspective on what has and has not changed before praising transformation and making a virtue of agility. 

We want to grow

We change because we want to improve. The forms of competitive advantage haven’t evolved, but the ‘use by date' is getting shorter; business must transform more often to remain relevant let alone stay ahead. Yet, some refuse to acknowledge this competitive dynamic shift. 

Principles for transformation in business

Research by McKinsey points to four principles that underpin transformation:

  • Create role models: leaders must model values, beliefs and behaviours
  • Create a compelling story: transformation needs a story that is meaningful (the “why”) and relevant (why me?)
  • Develop talent/skills: people must think and act in new ways
  • Reinforce change through formal mechanisms: structures and systems must be aligned to support the adoption of the new values, beliefs, and behaviours. 

The final principle leads me to frustrations I often hear: ‘we're trapped,' ‘we lack alignment’ or my pet hate ‘because we’ve always done it like this’.   These comments are due to differences between current and desired structures. Systems and structures will overwhelm transformation efforts if they’re not redesigned to support the new way. 

High-performance teams and businesses seek ‘the edge’. They embrace new ways, yet they falter when structures and systems don't reflect these changes. 

How often do you see leaders take small chances to test ideas rather than going all in and refusing to back down? Not often. And mainly because it will "be too much" or "they will fight against it so let's ease them into it". But building a team that is competitive means challenging the 'standard' and leaping out of mediocrity.  

In short, organisations need to adapt and, when necessary, transform with increasing frequency. New mindsets and methods are key to staying competitive. But these new ways of thinking and acting can only flourish when we redesign supporting structures and systems. 

Stop craving superficial changes, and crave generating advantages, and create teams that reinvent what it means to work well together and prosper.


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