When working on business as usual, we expect particular results. We may achieve incremental progress by improving ways of working. If there is a lot of organizational waste to eliminate, we may even obtain great results.
Enterprise transformation, on the other hand, places a blank page in front of the executive team – a fresh opportunity. It gives everyone in the company a chance to reconnect with the customer, and also to see if what they know for sure about the business and their clients is truly so.
Not all transformations are happy. Some quickly turn into oppressive change, carried out with insufficient communication and without support from leadership. Poorly done transformation leads to massive resistance and leaves long-lasting negative effects on people, business and customers.
However, the transformation that stands out in my memory was not at all like that: it was a kind transformation.
It was a global project aiming for territorial realignment for the salespeople and improved cooperation across functions and product lines. One reason it has stuck in my memory is that the company leaders managed not only to simplify the business for customers but also to create an exciting sense of opportunity for employees.
A kind transformation is one that naturally connects with the aspirations and ambitions of most people in the company, thus neutralizing from the start the defiance that haunts many change efforts.
Here is how they did it:
They built a culture first. Transformations are easier if the business runs on a desire to delight the customer. Over the years, this company created a workspace in which people felt safe and appreciated. They could problem-solve freely, with support from senior management. They were motivated to improve, as they knew it would be good for them and customers alike, and so they saw the transformation as an opportunity to grow and learn, an exciting challenge.
They made it about their customers. Top executives interviewed customers worldwide. This enabled them to draw a detailed picture of the value stream as seen through their customers’ eyes. From this feedback, they built a story. As a result, they did not need to create any artificial sense of urgency: the feedback from customers, shared widely in the organization, was compelling enough to drive action.
They transformed when they still had time – before the market put the pressure on and delivered an ultimatum: transform or die. Because they had time, leaders of key areas could propose a strategic plan that did not require immediate and costly staff cuts. There was just the right amount of urgency, which still left time to reflect and discuss. People instinctively felt that this transformation had potential to be a success – and to bring them success, too.
They built a vision. When the CEO announced the transformation, he explained in simple words what everyone needed to do, and why. The vision was appealing; it was also unequivocal, yet just loose enough for people to project themselves into it and figure out how to participate. Kind-hearted but firm, the vision left no space for pondering about returning to the status quo – the only way out was through.
They involved everyone. Over the next year, unless you worked under a rock, you would hear about the initiative from colleagues, your manager and the manager of your manager. You would read about it in corporate communications and discuss it over lunch in the canteen. After CEO’s message, the executive team shaped projects with leaders in each key area and with their teams, who in turn communicated with the rest of the company in terms of “what it means for us”. By the time the vision reached people on the front lines, a lot of them could connect it with their roles and make sense of it.
They prepared for the transformation thoroughly. Leaders driving transformation listened a lot: to customers, to operational leadership and to employees. The transformation team met individually with leaders whose area would be affected by the transformation, anticipating work to be done and supporting the creation of the transformation plan. Armed with these insights, they were ready to address concerns and questions personally, through town halls and all-hands meetings, and also via effective corporate communication.
They communicated regularly. The CEO sent out a monthly newsletter, the transformation leader provided a message twice a month, and each program team produced weekly updates. The style of the overall communication was neither overly optimistic nor expressly gloomy; it was focused and, again, kind. As a result, people actually read the updates, and whenever their management was mentioned, they were excited to see their team’s work highlighted in a company-wide communication.
This transformation could have been too daunting or messy to achieve anything. But instead it was more of a healthy stretch, one that people could take on and that allowed them to strengthen their transformation capability for the future, even if it proved even more volatile.
Thank you for your attention, dear reader. I will be back when I have more to share. In the meantime, transform kindly.