The problem with transformations
Every organization on the planet has some sort of major initiative underway to change how work gets done, to become more agile or lean, to reimagine the entire company or agency, to innovate and digitally transform, or to digitally evolve the organization. Not all of it is great, nor will it be successful* – and, frankly, all of it can be a bit overwhelming and tiring for staff, particularly when things don’t go as well as we’d hoped. In fact, there’s a phrase for it – digital exhaustion.
*Unfortunately, 70% of digital transformations fail.
And yet, leaders continue to talk about achieving the holy grail of “digital transformation”; all the while, creating confusion around what this term means, how exactly to get there, and why the transformation is important in the first place. To make matters worse, countless software vendors have added the words “digital transformation” to their long list of products to give your future purchase an air of sophistication and be able to support whatever digital strategy your organization is trying to undertake. Who doesn’t want to buy something that will help them “digitally transform”? Sign me up! I’ll take two.
That’s where this article can provide some guidance. We will cover what a transformation is (and is not), how to set your organization up for success, and some of the pitfalls to avoid.
Transformation in name only
The pervasive problem in our industry is that there is, in fact, real value in looking for ways to get better and creating products and services that excite and delight our customers (and that they look forward to buying and/or using). However, a lot of times we slap a coat of paint on the old car and call it good. And it’s not good. It’s pretty far from good. And when we continue to paint the old car while calling it something fancy sounding like “agile” or “digital transformation”, our people notice, they resist the change, and they get fatigued that leadership is chasing after yet another buzzword with no intention of making sure that it sticks.
Why I care about transformation
In my first role as a Program Manager, I cut my teeth on a business transformation – even though there wasn’t really a well-known term for it back then. We just saw a need for our organization to work in a dramatically different way and made it happen (make-it-happen-change-project doesn’t quite have the same ring to it). The major part of the transformation took about two years to complete, but the company looked very different when I left than it did when I arrived. It was a hectic and crazed experience, and our team made loads of mistakes and learned many lessons along the way, but I loved every minute of it.
It was that opportunity early on in my career that instilled in me a passion for helping organizations become better than they are today, and it continues to be my passion now that “transformation” is thrown around by every organization and practically every leader I meet these days. Whatever you call it, the fundamental truths and characteristics of a successful, long-lasting transformation remain the same.
Change versus Transformation: an analogy
Before we jump into the the how of transformation, let’s quickly define a few terms. Per ITIL 4, the differences between change, transformation, and evolution are:
- Change: A different way of executing tasks. Doing things as the had previously been done, but in a more efficient and productive way.
- Transformation: A different way of working. It involves changes in beliefs, values, and intent. Transformation results in a shift in the organizational system and, as a result, in personal and organizational behavior. The transformation is based on learning from previous mistakes.
- Evolution: A state of continual improvement through transformation and change. The foundation of evolution is constant adjustments in values, beliefs, and behaviors, with the use of internal and external feedback.
Transformation through Organizational Change Management
One of the most comprehensive ways to tackle transformation is with Organizational Change Management (OCM). OCM is a body of knowledge and a discipline that help organizations navigate change efforts. Here’s one perspective on the purpose of OCM, as defined by ITIL 4:
Organizational Change Management ensures that changes in an organization are implemented smoothly and successfully, and that lasting benefits are achieved.
OCM involves helping our organization and the teams within it continually grow, change, and transform – and making sure those changes last over the long-term.
Principles of OCM
Organizations that are successful with transformational change efforts have the following characteristics in place:
- Clear and relevant objectives (the transformative change must be of real value)
- Strong and committed leadership (those who lead by example)
- Willing and prepared participants (who we support along the way)
- Sustained improvement (because it’s really easy to go back to old ways of working)
People make up the heart of our organization; and it is people who ultimately determine whether or not an organizational change will take root and be successful.
Organizational transformation requires the work of people to happen. However, we can’t force change on our people. Instead, we have to paint a picture of the “art of what’s possible”, so that they get excited and are willing to change how they work and interact with others. The status quo within an organization has an immensely strong “gravitational pull” that we will need to combat (more on that later).
The manager accepts the status quo; the leader challenges it. – Warren Bennis
The ITIL 4 practice guide, while a good place to start to frame your mindset on what OCM is, is by no means the de facto standard nor where you should stop in your studies on the topic. This article will explore other areas of OCM including the Satir Change Model and Kotter’s “Leading Change” and “Accelerate”, pivotal books on the discipline of OCM.
The Satir Model and its relationship to OCM
The Satir Change Model was developed by Virginia Satir, family therapist and author, to help individuals improve how they cope with major, often times, unexpected change. Change – whether it be in our personal lives or at work – is extremely hard, and we have to prepare our people that it’s not going to be “rainbows and unicorns” (both are lovely and, as we all know, rainbows do not exist).
When forming new habits and doing work they’ve never done before, teams will actually become slower before they become faster, and it’s our job as leaders to help them get to the other side of a major, transformative change and beyond what’s called Kaplan’s Law or the “miserable middle”. That’s where the Satir Change Model can help us prepare and come up with a plan on how we’re going to ensure success each step of the way in our transformation.
Satir Change Model
The “ITIL 4 Leader: Digital and IT Strategy” or “DITS” book also talks a bit about the Satir Change Model:
The Satir change model, used to describe the stages that any individual, team, or organization goes through when implementing a significant change. When an organization starts to face setbacks, many will unfortunately stop and return to the status quo. This will ultimately make it harder for the organization to institute change in the future. However, the most successful digital organizations prepare for the resistance, chaos, setbacks, [and inevitable failures along the way], build the capabilities that are needed to achieve their long-term digital goals, and eventually move past these challenges to improved performance and results.
It’s helpful to understand (and communicate to our teams) that how we expect the change effort to happen compared to how change actually happens are two very different things. Transformational change is not for the faint of heart, but the fight, if we stick with it, will be worthwhile.
Kotter’s 8 Steps and its relationship to OCM
The DITS book goes on to say:
When the Satir change model is used in combination with Kotter’s eight-step process, it can provide a toolset for leaders in working with their teams at all levels and leading the transformational change.
Kotter’s eight step process is as follows:
Create a sense of urgency
Build a guiding coalition
Form a strategic vision and initiatives
Enlist a volunteer army
Enable action by removing barriers
Generate short-term wins
Each step in the Kotter model is crucially important, and when we skip steps, we end up creating more work for ourselves later on by having to go back through steps and, most significantly, we run the risk of our teams becoming discouraged and the entire transformation failing. The OCM guide uses the term “anchoring a new culture approach”, which I like, but that doesn’t generally happen until step 8. The next few sections give a (very) brief overview of the eight steps in the process, starting with the first three steps that help us address our organization’s status quo.
Steps 1-3: Creating a Sense of Urgency, Building a Guiding Coalition, and Forming a Strategic Vision and Initiatives
Never underestimate the magnitude of the forces that reinforce complacency and that help maintain the status quo.
– John P. Kotter
The COVID-19 pandemic created a genuine sense of urgency for organizations nearly overnight, one that could not be avoided or delayed. The most successful companies (and the ones that will rise from this crisis stronger than they were before) are the ones that, after getting over the shock of it all, saw this crisis as an opportunity and looked for ways to innovate, re-connect with their customers, and “rally the troops” to affect real and lasting change.
However, once this pandemic is in our “rear-view mirror”, that doesn’t mean that the need for transformational change will go away. We as leaders, to affect long-term survival, need to help our teams understand the urgency of external changes (decreasing sales trends, shifting customer needs, etc.), help our team continue to look at external threats as they arise, and make sure we use that messaging of urgency when building our “guiding coalition”.
In building our coalition, it must include leaders at the top of the organization and people who have influence (including representatives from the groups that will be impacted) throughout the organization. In a highly interconnected organization, transformative change will impact all parts of it. With that said, one person cannot alone effect change, particularly within an organization that is entrenched in the “way things are done”. We need a team of committed people to help us plan out at a high level what needs to happen and to help craft and communicate a compelling vision.
To be successful, we as leaders need to take time to clearly and succinctly craft and shape a bold “why” behind the transformation and communicate it to our staff until it becomes a mantra. People will change if they see that there’s a benefit to doing so. However, a lot of times we mistakenly assume we’ve successfully communicated the why (“I sent a memo! I gave an impassioned speech! Why aren’t people implementing the change?”) and that the “why” is compelling, but we’ve only really started to scratch the surface.
One of the lines in the OCM practice guide states, “If personal and organizational values are aligned, any resistance to change will be viewed as an additional source of information and resource for improvement. Managing resistance will not be needed.” I agree with the first statement here because I currently work at an organization where that’s the case. If your teams see the organization as moving in the right direction, doing the right thing, and they understand the reason for changing, there isn’t the same level of resistance as in organizations where these things aren’t present. However, change is hard regardless, and we must prepare our staff for the change and get their honest feedback on the vision.
A simple, clear, and concrete statement on the “why” and the “why we need to do it now” can serve as a “north star” in our transformation efforts and makes the rest of the journey easier. These next few steps help us start to develop new practices and ways of working with our organization.
Steps 4-6: Enlist a volunteer army, enable action by removing barriers, and generate short-term wins
There will be blood pain.
Once we have a small army in place and a clear vision, we need to enlist a much larger army. Transformative change is not done by a small group. Instead, it requires the help, leadership, alignment, trust, and sacrifice of many (hundreds, thousands, or even tens of thousands) of people. We cannot depend on a few people to “row the boat”. We need many people to row and ensure they’re all rowing us in the same direction.
In a transformation, everything in our organization will likely be impacted to some extent – how we lead, the systems we use, what we measure, how we reward and promote our people, etc. This figure from the ITIL 4 “Digital and IT Strategy” book does a nice job of showing what’s impacted in a digital transformation initiative.
Key Digital Transformation Themes
One way to discourage our people and torpedo our transformation efforts is to expect change to happen spontaneously and not be willing to take a hard look at and make changes in these areas. Often, we may find that something in our organization is a “roadblock” to allowing people to work in new ways, and we will need to change those systems or structures, provide needed time and resources (for example, we can’t ask people to row without giving them an adequate paddle). We also have to make sure that we’re “leading by example” and not just talking about the needed change, but also acting in a way that’s in alignment with the vision we’re trying to achieve.
Once we’ve enlisted the help of our larger army and set them up for success by giving them the resources they need, continuing to get feedback, and removing barriers, we then need to find ways to measure and communicate our short-term successes. Transformative change takes years (not weeks or months, as many of us would hope) to fully realize; and our team will lose momentum and revert to old ways of working if we don’t help them plan for and realize these short-term wins.
Steps 7 and 8: Sustain acceleration and institute change
Shallow roots require constant watering. – John P. Cotter
Once we’ve started to make changes, we need to keep going as small changes can often add up to and drive much larger changes. Our teams may be tired (seeing as they’re still in the “miserable middle”), but we need to keep pushing forward until we’ve realized our vision; and the “roots” of change have been firmly planted into our organization’s culture. I really like how Kotter phrases it, “…the challenge is to graft the new practices onto the old roots while killing off the inconsistent pieces.” The good news is that the more change that happens within an organization, the more people get used to new ways of working, they will start to let go of old ways of working, and they become more amenable to change. Cultural change can happen, but it happens at the end; and we want to make sure our new practices are firmly entrenched before we call our transformation a success and move on.
One of the last statements I really like in the OCM practice guide is around fostering a change-enabling culture, “An organization that adapts changes can be established by creating an atmosphere where people are encouraged to speak up, challenge the ways things are done, and communicate effectively.”
I would add to that statement that great environments are also ones where people can give honest feedback, state disagreements on parts of the vision or transformation they see as problematic, as well as question and call out leadership when they’re behaving in a way that’s counter to the values and beliefs they espouse. It’s far better to have honest conversations as to why something won’t work or isn’t working than to have everyone say “yes” and not change their behaviors, essentially, saying “no” with their actions. It’s vitally important to the success of our transformation efforts and the long-term viability of our organizations that everyone is “on board” and we’re actually headed in the right direction.
Transformational change is often messy, risky, humbling, grueling, and takes way longer than we’d like it to, but I’ve seen it be successful, and for something that’s worth aiming for, it’s so worthwhile.