Over the years, I’ve worked on quite a few ‘corporate transformation’ programmes. Some were highly successful. Others we don’t talk about.
Typically, success and failure depended on the behaviour of the people in charge. Including my own.
Though looking at each experience as a learning opportunity, I have identified a few behaviours of which I remind myself every time I work on a new project or with a new team. They typically live as a reminder in my (digital) drawer. So I cleaned them up a bit, to share in this article.
I don’t pretend I always display them. I’m human. Have an ego. Blunder.
But they do work for me, so I try.
What do you think? Would they work for you too?
Behaviour #1. Check my biases.
Even if I once did their job, my perspective on work and life differs greatly from that of the people I work with. Because I can never know what it’s like to have ‘me’ as a boss. But also because I have information, assumptions, worldviews and - let’s be blunt - privileges that differ from those in my teams.
These will bias the view I have on what’s easy and hard to achieve. So before moving the business in a new direction, I need to identify and sense-check any assumptions I make on behalf of others. Because their reality may differ from what I imagine it to be.
Behaviour #2. Make it about them, not me.
I’ve often been to corporate offsite sessions where we cooked up strategies and ‘transformations’ that got me all excited. But to those who weren’t in the room, they are just words on a flip-chart. People don’t work for companies to build shareholder value or achieve KPIs. They do it to make a living. To socialise with colleagues. Grow as individuals and professionals. Perhaps even make the world a better place.
So to make a transformation happen, I shouldn’t assume that any strategy, process or KPI means anything to the people in an organisation. Instead, I must take time to understand what they are looking for and reframe whatever change we aim for into something they actually care about. Yes, salary and job security can be part of that mix. But fear and greed only work for so long.
Behaviour #3. Show them ‘where to go’, but go easy on ‘how to get there’.
When ‘leading’, my job isn’t to tell people how to do their job. It’s setting a direction and a target destination. Then leave the journey to the teams I work with.
Along the way, I can support with training, tools, coaching, and, if needed, some tough love. But by giving them ownership, their commitment to the transformation will increase. What's more, they are sure to bring ideas that are better than anything I could come up with myself. Letting go is always scary. But it works.
And if I feel they cannot do this, I may have recruited the wrong people for the job. Or more likely, I’m having unrealistic expectations (See #1).
Behaviour #4. Help my teams step into uncertainty
Every transformation involves risk and uncertainty. Trying out new things which may lead to success, but also to failure. And in corporate life, failure isn’t good for your career.
So if I want people to take initiative, I need to help them take action when the outcome is uncertain. Reframe failure in learning. Reward behaviours instead of results. Get people to act as teams, instead of individuals. And if the stakes run high, show them that success will be theirs, while I take the heat if things go wrong.
Behaviour #5. Be steadfast, but tread lightly
Every business is a complex system which will never behave as I expect. ‘Fix’ one thing, and I’ll destabilise something else. ‘Fix’ this newly created problem, and a third and fourth area goes off the rails. The result is that I can never ‘solve’ a transformation. No matter how much I plan, there will always be unintended and unpredictable consequences to my interventions.
So rather than going ‘all in’ in a direction, I should feel my way through the change. Take small initiatives. See what happens. Learn. As long as we keep moving in the right direction, we’re fine. Even if this means taking the occasional detour.
Behaviour #6. Be a master of death
Most business always want to do ‘more’. But transformation cannot happen unless we also ‘stop’ doing things. Habits, beliefs, activities, and sometimes jobs need to ‘die’ to make a place for the new.
This can be a problem because, as humans, we’re pretty allergic to the ‘death’ thing. In fact, we will do everything we can to avoid the end of something which has been part of our lives. It’s irrational, and sometimes stupid. But we do it nonetheless.
So when the time comes, my job is to say we should ‘stop doing’ something. To let practices ‘die’. But also to give people time to grieve about them and get used to the new reality. Whatever that may be.
Behaviour #7. Remember the difference between compliance and transformation
Consulting wisdom says that transformation programmes are designed by smart people using complex methodologies, who then cascade their wise words and diagrams throughout the organisation. I’ve been there too. More than once.
But these days I remind myself that this is about asking (demanding?) compliance rather than pursuing transformation.
In certain situations, this can still be the smartest move. As long as I remember that any change that is forced will only go skin-deep. For real transformation, the people in the business need to adopt new ways because they feel this is the right thing to do. Not because I say so.
After all, I might be wrong too 🙂.
Are you working on a customer-centric transformation?
Then let's chat over virtual coffee. We can spar a bit about your situation and challenges. Even if it leads nowhere, I’m sure we’ll have an interesting conversation! ☕️
Alain Thys is an experience architect who helps organisations drive profit and transformation through experience.