Nowadays, few companies escape the need for transformation, a necessary process if they want to be competitive and one that goes beyond the opportunity offered by the digital revolution.
Change management methodologies, such as Kotter’s 8 steps, are already veterans in the management arena. Many years have passed, but the success rate of transformations remains very low, a clear sign that we should question the way in which we approach them.
McKinsey explores this in a recent report: Losing from day one: why even the most successful transformations fall short. Here, it is demonstrated that even companies with “successful transformations” rarely capture all the potential benefits of this effort.
The negative implications are highly relevant for the future of any organization: financial results below expectations, frustration on the part of the various stakeholders, opportunities missed to provide clients with more value, and drifting away from the organization’s vision and purpose.
“Sub-optimum” transformations or more ambitious?
A transformation can fail for any number of reasons: the lack of a clear purpose; scant understanding of the real reasons for change; a lack of cohesion in the leadership team; a lack of “social” leadership (without the bravery and honesty to face difficult conversations); unrealistic objectives; people management policies that are not aligned with the transformation; deficient communication; an inability to imagine the future due to remaining trapped in the present…
If the company has also enjoyed success in the past (growing sales, a good reputation and profitability, leadership in its sector…), we will have the perfect cocktail. These inertias may entail an additional difficulty. There will be a real risk of being complacent and passive in the transformation and becoming satisfied with a “superficial transformation”.
In this article, we focus on a risk which has received less study: underestimating the complexity and the effort involved in any profound transformation or thinking that it can be implemented by external experts instead of internal teams.
Such beliefs are associated with an insufficient degree of resilience and involvement at the various organizational levels, and they lead to a transformation that will have little impact in the medium term.
Good consultants bring unquestionable value with their facilitation skills and external experiences in many different sectors. Very often they end up becoming valuable “partners” with in-depth knowledge of the inner workings of the organization. Nevertheless, it will be the internal teams who have to “land” the transformation, if we want it to have a genuine, long-lasting impact.
Christophe Martinot (an expert in transformations and an agile coach) sums this up well: “a transformation is about hard work; money can’t buy it”.
The “hard work” lies in integrating the transformation into the organization’s DNA, fully assimilating its complexity, accompanying the teams as they experience the ups and down which will surely come, providing them with emotional support when doubts arise, and transmitting the excitement of the role they play in creating a better collective future in order to combat natural (often unconscious) inertia, laziness and natural resistance to change.
What tools and attitudes can help us to move from a passive mentality to play a leading role in a transformation?
Some initiatives have shown themselves to be effective: co-creating a purpose that motivates us to get up every morning; leading by example; communicating with transparency; challenging the status quo; integrating the agile mentality into the day-to-day; swiftly capitalizing on small successes; creating a group of “motivated ambassadors”; treating people with maturity; and experiencing the transformation with good doses of realism, humility and empathy. Managing a transformation goes beyond change management methodologies and entails a profound change in people’s mentality in order to confront possible barriers and limiting beliefs.
Purpose and two-way communication
Defining a vision and a purpose is where everything begins. Specifying the why and wherefore is a prior step and should not be confused with the necessary definition of objectives. Mixing these two concepts is one of the most common factors of failure in many transformations.
Linked with the purpose, we need a realistic narrative (which brings out opportunities, without skirting around difficulties), a flexible, two-way conversation so that we can adapt to whatever may arise along the way. Etymologically, converse means “move together”, and this is what all good leaders want: to generate a positive buzz and broaden the base of people who support the change out of conviction and not because it is imposed.
Over and above the intention behind any transformation (strategy, processes, ways of working…) and the valuable supporting methodologies, it is the combination of leadership, attitude and environment that will make a difference. Leaders who, within the framework of a solid purpose, inspire teams to be “key players in the transformation”. People with a play-to-win attitude (growth mindset, resilience, maturity, bravery, the desire to excel, self-confidence, self-responsibility, humility, non-conformism…) and an environment of “psychological safety” in which constructive disagreement is encouraged in order to continually improve and innovate.
This article has also been published in Do Better by ESADE, November 1, 2023