The Front Lines of Transformation – Lessons Learned

Innovation + Transformation Work Culture

Increasing customer demands getting difficult to meet?
Customer buying patterns upsetting your supply chain and service model?
Nimble competitors beating you to the punch?

Sound familiar? You are not alone. Successfully navigating this terrain requires a shared vision and case for change that transcends functions and divisions. Creating a high-performance culture requires an appreciation for the ecosystem of interdependencies, a tolerance for ambiguity and the ability to prioritize and allocate resources to the most impactful work in delivering on the transformation effort and the overall company vision.

In our experience at Future State, we often see companies make the same mistakes in their transformation efforts – no matter the industry, no matter the product or service. Read on to learn from our experience on how to avoid these pitfalls.

Transformation starts at the top
Leadership must be bought in at the highest levels.

Leaders are the ‘make it or break it’ of transformation efforts. Even one functional leader dragging their heels or protecting their territory over driving for the ultimate goal can impair or even derail the transformation. Any transformation initiative needs to start with aligned vision and outcomes, which is sometimes the easy part. The real game changer is how leaders demonstrate resilience further into the transformation, when the landscape starts changing – shifts in power and decision making can create fear-based, protectionist mindsets. The key to success here is to continue to refine the vision, develop executives and provide opportunities for leaders to become more strategic in their roles. If they can see themselves in the future, they will be more likely to stay inspired and on track until the end.

Show them what’s in it for them
Create clearly understandable outcomes that incorporate an entire ecosystem perspective. Make them good for the business and people.

People transform, companies don’t. This is why the articulation of the vision and outcomes for your people (and eventually your partners and customers) allows them to align themselves to the effort and take actions on a daily basis that contribute to the success of the transformation. This is ongoing over the life of a transformation; it begins with a small audience of leadership and key contributors across the organization, but eventually involves everyone across the ecosystem. Your transformation will be much more successful if the vision includes reducing pain felt in the organization and is aligned to what matters on the whole and not just your bottom line.

Listen to your people
Get broad input early from a diverse group. The answer is often more complex than we think.

The ability to listen and gain insight to determine what really needs to be transformed – and how – will set your transformation up for success. This muscle needs to be developed at the beginning and strengthened as the transformation expands across the ecosystem. A healthy appreciation and tolerance for complexity will enable you to understand the whole picture, prioritize and take effective action in the areas of most impact. In seeing that you are listening and acting upon that listening, employees will be inspired to contribute to the success.

Build confidence in a better future
Success includes near-term wins leading to larger changes.

Success is contagious. Setting up your transformation as a portfolio of work that prioritizes near-term wins can get that success rolling. This can reduce pain and uncertainty for people, build confidence in the change and generate broad-based support and engagement for the long road of transformation. Short-term wins alone will eventually lose their power, but if short-term wins build to the overall realization of the vision of the transformation, you will maintain momentum.

Communicate, communicate, communicate
No news = negative news. Transparency builds trust.

Knowing what to communicate to whom, when and how requires a deep understanding of the ecosystem of your stakeholders and is a critical to the success of your transformation. It allows for the articulation of the vision and outcomes, effective mobilization, ongoing alignment and success communications as the transformation progresses over time.

Select a team of shining stars
Select the right people for the journey, those whom people already do and will follow. Empower and prepare them for the road ahead.

Set your core team up for success by allocating them the time and resources to do the work. Assure them (and back it up with consistent actions) that leadership has their back and will work with them to make the transformation successful. Agree on ways of working and clear roles and responsibilities. Orient them to the mindset and behaviors needed to be successful and take the time to establish a healthy, collaborative team culture.

Rebrand failure as learning
Celebrate the learning. Create a safe space to test, fail, learn and succeed.

If your company does not already have a culture of learning and continuous improvement, your transformation team has to double-down on this! Leaders and team members need to be given permission to challenge the status quo in order to build something new. Plan to succeed by making room to fail, and plan to learn from your failures. Do a pilot or limited test before rolling out to the full audience to mitigate risk. Build in time to conduct ‘lessons learned’, and when you communicate about success, also communicate about what you learned from what did not work. Emphasize that things won’t be perfect, and mistakes will be made. How you react to them, support the team and learn from them sets the example for others to have the courage to keep going.

Make decisions that stick
Retracting decision-making power erodes confidence. Know early who needs to make decisions and with what input.

Don’t delegate decisions to people who are not ready to make them or lack the right information or perspective to make them effectively. Decisions need to be made quickly and succinctly. The person who makes them needs to be accountable and capable of accepting the risk of failure. Later, when you are in a steady state, you can focus on driving decision making down in the organization to the proper thresholds. If you do drive decision making to lower levels in a transformation, make sure you have the proper alignment and collaboration with leadership to ensure they will stick.

It’s a journey, not a destination
After transformation, continuous improvement is the name of the game.

The long tail of implementation takes work and refinement. Plan to allocate resources to the effort and enable the true behavioral shifts required to realize your investment. Don’t be seduced by the belief that it’ll be perfect right out of the gate – put in place the resources and mindset needed to support your change and continuously improve on it. This also builds confidence with the organization, to know that you’re committed to the transformation in the long term.