Sunday, April 17, 2011

How Complicated Can Transformation Be?

Transformation requires teams that are focused on success, and requires the leadership to focus on five main areas – talent, culture, strategy, decision making and execution (Wiseman and McKeown, 2010, p.118).

Transformation, as a business methodology, is often misunderstood and it’s worth noting that some definitions of transformation from the concise Oxford English dictionary include the act or instance of transforming; and the induced or spontaneous change of one element into another. Yet too often in organisations the ‘transformation’ process is anything but ‘spontaneous.’

Robert Miles highlights in his 2010 article how if you “ask any CEO who has overseen a corporate transformation want should have been handled differently; you’re likely to get the answer: we should have and could have moved faster.”

In fact Miles highlights the most common responses as;

 Wishing they had unified the leadership team right away;
 Wishing they had engaged the employees sooner and quickly drummed up support for the new vision;
 Wishing they hadn’t waited so long to test the assumptions and refine their key initiatives;
 Wishing they had generated some visible returns early on, to accelerate the commitments and reinforce the expectations of employees, customers, suppliers and investors.

Of course many consultants reading this will be confident that this doesn’t apply to them and only describes an organisation that probably needed a consultancy intervention in the first place – but that is more bravado than anything else; transformations are hardly ever a smooth process and lessons can always be learnt. As Miles mentions “transforming an enterprise requires intensive cooperation among executive peers. Strong traditional units have to share resources with unproven or underperforming units, and often they must sacrifice something they value for the good of the whole,” (p.70).

In fact as Miles states “successful transformations call for a rigorous confrontation of reality, both external and internal.” This requires the full engagement in the process of the strategic leadership team, top and supervisory management, without an exception. Anyone left out of the process can become a significant ‘block’ on progress when the transformation process is at its most critical stage and this individual has absolutely no idea why ‘their area’ needs to change – to the extent that they can sabotage the whole process (or try to).

But “beyond mandating involvement, you have to provide safe passage, as this enables managers and employees to be brutally honest about what they see as the company’s greatest weaknesses and encourage them to contribute ideas on how to launch the transformation and keep it going,” (p.71).

One of the biggest problems with transformation is that the process has to be done in parallel to the ‘current day-to-day business activities.’ It’s not like many of these reality shows where you can close the business for a while, make the transformation and then re-open again. The transformation process is an extra activity on top of the daily activities, and hence it’s vital to manage;

1) The allocation of time and expectations;

2) Supporting the transformation and focusing on ‘short-term’ goals or key events;

3) Communicate ‘successes’ as soon as they happen and constantly motivate the organisation at all levels;

4) Dissident voices in the organisation. The worst thing for a transformation is a manger who will agree to the process in front of the leader and be against it in front of their own team;

5) The appropriate training and development to add value to the process;

6) The three key motivational moments, when energy levels may drop, which are;

(a)post launch (when there’s a feeling of, phew, we’ve started);

(b) event specific over confidence (when certain areas of the organisation find things are going better than expected and become over confident and ‘relaxed’); and

(c) the assumption that once implemented ‘gravity’ will ensure continuous improvement from now on.

7) Don’t take on too much at the same time – you’ll just cause a bottleneck.

This last point is vital, because, as Miles highlights “in the most successful corporate transformations, managers restrict their action agendas to three, or at most four, well articulated companywide initiatives – each one containing only two or three carefully selected areas of focus tied to clear outcome metrics,” (p.72).

Finally, when managing the process just remember that “if the team members feel they don’t have quite enough time, you probably have the pacing about right. And remember as the excitement of the launch wears off, some executives may lobby for old, familiar methods that are more to their liking,” (Miles, 2010, p.70; p.75). A good transformation manager will anticipate the changing moods during the process and will skilfully keep the project on track.


Miles, R.H., (2010). Accelerating Corporate Transformation (Don’t Lose Your Nerve!). Harvard Business Review, Vol. 88, Issue 1, p.68-75.

Wiseman, L. and McKeown, G. (2010). Bringing Out the Best in Your People. Harvard Business Review, Vol. 88, Issue 5, p.117-121

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