These days, every leadership team wants to see a mindset change in their people. They need to be more customer-centric. More digital. More agile. More innovative. More sustainable. More lean. More in love with the colour blue.
To make this happen, companies unleash so many transformation programmes that merely mentioning the T-word makes employees roll their eyes in despair. Only this year, I’ve had multiple executives tell me “what ever the content, let’s not call what we are doing a transformation.”
And can you blame them? Depending on your source, 70-84% of transformations fail. Going through another round of meetings, pain and late nights for a lottery chance of success is a poor deal. Especially when you’re working with the same type of consultants who report these poor success rates.
WHICH IS WHY, SEVERAL YEARS AGO, I STARTED WONDERING WHETHER THERE WAS A BETTER WAY. While I’m proud my transformational batting average is better than the numbers above, I’m still far from where I want to be. And most of what I learned from business school and management books isn't very helpful to improve.
So I explored how other disciplines looked at transformation. I dabbled in biology, immersive experiences, philosophy, neuroscience, systems thinking, anthropology, religion, behavioural design, spiritualism, physics, literature, sociology and more. I even did a very educational dive into the tarot.
I only scratched the surface of each of these domains. But combined with my experience in change management, they profoundly ‘transformed’ the way I thought about ‘transformation’ (meta!).
I’m now at a point where I can put my thoughts into a first set of principles. As usual, I’m making you the guinea pig to see if I’m making sense and whether my points resonate. If not ... shoot!
So let’s look at my first attempt at The Eight Laws of (Corporate) Transformation
LAW #1: As a leader, you are powerless in the face of transformation.
I regularly meet executives who feel that their transformation programme is going too slow or in the wrong direction. But instead of changing the programme, perhaps it’s their patience and expectations that need a tune-up.
Organisations and humans are complex systems, full of contradictions and paradoxes. Their mindset and decisions result from hundreds of variables that interact in more ways than we can understand. Every impulse you give has dozens of unintended, unpredictable consequences. So planning for transformation is - in part - an oxymoron. Things will not happen as fast or how you want. Expecting differently only leads to frustration.
Suggestion 1: Accept that you cannot ‘force’ a complex system. You can only give directional impulses. So rather than prescribe what your change should look like, tip over one domino, see what happens, and take your next step. Let reality be your guide.
LAW #2: Transformation requires a shift in perspective.
Playing with KPIs, parameters, feedback loops, and organisational structure may give you a feeling of progress. But this only changes behaviours, not minds. True transformation only happens when people change the way they see the world.
The good news is that this perceptual shift doesn’t require massive investments in technology or knowledge. These are merely tools. The challenge, however, is to understand how your people think today and how to make them progress towards an alternative narrative or reality. Not because you say so, but because it makes sense to them.
Suggestion 2: Don’t preach change. Instead, understand the perspective of those you try to influence. Create a story that expands their current beliefs to the vision you propose. Then focus on that narrative with everything you’ve got.
LAW #3: Narratives change through experience, not PowerPoint
When you’re on a mission, it is always tempting to enlighten your employees with a new strategic direction. Show them the way. Tell them what to do. But every parent will tell you that life doesn’t work that way. Despite well-intended warnings and advice, kids will only really learn from their own experience.
The same applies to adult employees. Unless you have the persuasive powers of Martin Luther King, you can talk as much as you like about being customer focused, agile, inclusive, or digital. Your people will only internalise these messages if they experience what they mean. See how they can improve their lives, and the lives of those they care about.
Suggestion 3: Augment your slideshows with personal experiences that let your people ‘feel’ the change you propose. Make market research tangible through customer empathy initiatives. Change your diversity and inclusion courses into immersive experiences. Replace agile or digital preaching with moments that let your people get comfortable with new realities. Even enjoy them. Remember that experience comes first. Words come later.
LAW #4: Transformations require a social movement (aka. Law of preferential attachment)
Individuals transform when they shift (expand) their perception of reality. But to achieve transformation at scale, you need a social movement. After all, change means stepping into uncertainty. As tribal animals, we hate doing that alone.
If, however, we see that those who follow new ways are more successful or have more fun, we will emulate their behaviour. Join their group. This attracts others at an exponential growth rate. Until, even for the most conservative among us, the perceived risk of embracing a next reality outweighs the (social) benefits it offers.
Suggestion 4: Think about transformations as ‘movements’ that start small but snowball. Create a first point of gravity by finding those who already share your worldview and then support their actions. Highlight their successes. Then, scale by inviting others to join the change until you reach the tipping point where no one wants to be left in the ‘out’ group.
LAW #5: Transformations require contextual change
Our environment has a massive impact on our ability to transform. In less than two years, Covid changed the way we want to work and live. Putin’s mindless aggression is doing more for Europe’s energy transformation than two decades of campaigning ever did.
This also applies to organisations. If you redesign the spaces, tools, processes, etc. at work, your people will adapt their behaviour to this new reality. As we all like telling ourselves we are doing the right thing, this will influence some of their beliefs. Inversely, if you keep the work context constant, while asking for change, your people will be less inclined to move.
Suggestion 5: You don’t need to go as far as Sun Tzu, who made his soldiers fight harder by burning the bridges behind them. But you can encourage transformation by modifying the spaces, stories and behaviours that shape the context of your organisation. People are great at adapting to their environment, so making smart changes to this environment can be a shortcut to change.
LAW #6: People only transform when they’re ready.
Unless we move to the realms of abuse, I cannot transform you as a person. The best I can do is give you an impulse that hopefully expands your perception, which affects your thoughts and actions. However, if I push too hard, your brain will entrench itself in a position that resists change, even if this position is unreasonable or wrong.
This is an insight with huge implications. It means that you cannot make employees, ecosystem partners, or anyone embrace a change for which they aren’t ready yet. Forcing their hand will, at best, achieve grudging compliance. At worst, open resistance. People will only move position when they had the time and experiences to reconsider.
Suggestion 6: Pace your efforts. Before launching any grand vision, check where your people are today. Which new narratives are they willing to accept? Where will they fiercely protect their existing world views? Then, focus your interventions on the ‘next step’ only. This may test your patience as, in your mind, you’ve already run to the top of the mountain. But if you go too fast, you may be the only one there.
LAW #7: Transformation requires death.
Buddhists talk about Samsara. Physicists call it the law of energy conservation. Elton John sang about The Circle of Life. Either way, the rules are clear: for something new to flourish, something else needs to die.
The same applies to organisations. Transformation isn’t just about embracing the future. It’s also about abandoning old habits, processes, measures and beliefs. Perhaps even dreams.
As humans, we don’t like this. Our brain hates spending the energy to replace old neural pathways with new ones. Not to mention that it’s scary to swap the familiar for the uncertain. So even if we know it is necessary, part of us will always resist change.
Suggestion 7: Acknowledge that any transformation requires loss. Things you stop doing. Goals you abandon. Colleagues you lose. Dreams that die. So become a 'master of death'. Gently, but firmly help people through the tough decisions. Then, give them a moment to grieve and help them move on.
LAW #8: Transformations are always complex, but they do not need to be complicated.
One Covid variable changed the world. The single event of losing a job or a loved one can lead to personal reinvention. Or, in my case, a night of tequila infused enthusiasm can seriously rearrange your life priorities (i.e. ‘Hi mom and dad’).
Often, the answer to rapid and deep transformation isn’t about complicated programmes. It is about identifying a simple and attractive reason for change. Something your people seek or want to avoid, and which they cannot ignore. With Covid, this was survival. With loss, the need to start anew. Or, the knowledge that the kid is coming…
Suggestion 8: Look for the trigger that will make your people WANT to change. They will then figure out the systems, processes, KPIs and habits by themselves. Or, as my ultimate change guru, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, used to say: “if you want to build a ship, don't drum up the (wo)men to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.”
After reading the above, you may conclude that all this transformation talk is too much work. And you may be right. It takes a lot more time and effort to transform an organisation than to get the people to comply with a new direction. Depending on your situation, compliance may even be the right way to go.
But as our world shifts from command-and-control supply chains to organic ecosystems, I wonder whether we can keep relying on ‘pushing change’. Especially as yesterday, this approach already resulted in 70-84% failure rates. Tomorrow, these will only get worse.
To make continuous transformation a capability, we need to transform the way we look at transformation itself. Yes, there is that meta statement again.
We need to stop thinking that smart leaders and consultants cascade strategies and cajole their organisation into implementing them. Instead, we need to accept that transformation is as much about empathy, inspiration and encouragement as it is about discipline and death.
I haven't yet found many convincing frameworks to make this happen. They may not even exist yet.
Which is why I’m giving it a try. I’m sure my suggestions are far from perfect, but they're a start. I look forward to any improvements you see.
What do you think?
Do you want to talk about real transformation?
Then let’s have a virtual coffee. I don’t have all the answers, but I have collected a few which you won’t find in traditional management courses. We can explore them together! 😉.
Alain Thys is an experience architect who helps organisations drive profit and transformation through experience.