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  • Writer's pictureNick Smith

T is for Transformation Troubles

In this 'guest' blog, Neil Finnie explores some of the challenges associated with how transformation is so often approached - and how a change focus can make a real difference.

Transformation - what do we even mean by it? It means so many different things to different people and it’s a word so often over-used. How do we compare, for example, the transformation challenge facing Joe Biden in bringing together a divided country, with the transformation challenge of re-orientating a large organisation (yours?) to an increasingly digital future? The answer is of course you can’t, but for any individual in that organisation, the impact of the latter on day to day working life will be significant, or at least should be.

The problem with transformation is that it is a journey, and yet we tend to try and ‘manage’ it via a Programme. This is both problem and opportunity for those focused on change. How’s that? Well, transformation programmes tend to have a distinct, common ‘culture’ or ethos:

  • There is a big, complicated Programme vehicle which ‘delivers’ things (operating model, organisation structure, technology, tools, buildings, infrastructure etc).

  • Everything will be ‘finished’ when the Transformation Programme stops.

  • As an impacted colleague, I am excited to see what this Programme will ‘deliver’ to me.

This is all the wrong way round.

The programme is created as a separate entity, ‘responsible’ for the transformation with dedicated resources – and often a lot of them. That’s where it all happens. Others in the organisation get on with their working life, interested (or not) to see what transpires, and most often sceptical based on previous experience. Leadership frequently focusses on what the programme will ‘deliver’, rather than on the intended transformation of the organisation overall. And most of the attention is on the ‘things’ themselves, rather than the changes the things were originally intended to support.

Don’t get me wrong, there can be positives associated with the programme too (a focus, a vehicle for investment, momentum), and I am as guilty as anybody in my career of perpetuating the ‘Programme’, but I am sure all of us recognise the above description.

Let’s say you have decided your support functions are no longer fit for purpose for where your organisation is headed. Processes are sluggish. There is too much bureaucracy; too many people spending too much time on low value activities. Things take too long, and there is not much value add. The support functions are too much ‘support’, and (in particular) add insufficient value. And this is felt both inside and outside those functions – and by customers, partners and suppliers.

You are convinced that a new ERP system is a significant part of the answer. You have already spoken to suppliers who, not surprisingly, agree with you. A new ERP will provide world class processes ‘out of the box’, and this will be a catalyst for transforming your support functions.

And yet, an ERP system in itself will address none of the challenges described above. In fact, there is a risk it will further entrench the current (and problematic) ways of working. The ERP system is a tool which can support improved ways of working. But, to address your challenges, you need to work out how the business needs to change, and the approach to tackling those changes.

Successful transformation starts (not finishes) with a compelling picture – as Seth Godin says: ‘Transformational Leaders don’t start by denying the world around them. Instead, they describe a future they would like to create instead.’ And they stay with that compelling picture throughout. That makes transformation about leadership, commitment, and belief. And engaging people in the journey. Questions for the organisation are,

  • Do you want change?

  • Do you want to change?

  • Do you want to lead change?

Contrary to what we’ve all heard many times, there is no blueprint, playbook, or method, which guarantees success in transforming your organisation. Often these constructs and claims are simply encouragements to ‘outsource’ the transformation process – to another team, to a supplier, to a programme vehicle, to a process … or often all the above. Sound familiar?

A Change focus can enable transformation by helping leaders start with a compelling picture and narrative. This has to be detailed enough to be meaningful and engaging, and simple enough to be grasped by all. It has to be inspiring enough for people to not want it to happen to them, but to want to make it happen.

Successful transformation is about facing into the challenging questions upfront. Sounds simple, but it’s often not what happens, and it’s tough to do. If it was easy, everyone would be doing it!

So, T is for transformation, and maybe V is for vision? If you are involved in business transformation, whether leading, supporting, or helping, my advice is - focus on the future first. Start with the changes you believe your people need to make to realise that future, before you start thinking about ‘things’ that need to be built or delivered. Take your time on this step. Doing so will significantly accelerate your overall journey.

Neil is an expert in large scale transformation, with 30 years’ experience in utilities, financial services, construction, manufacturing, and retail. He has worked closely with leaders in blue chip organisations to diagnose and solve their transformation challenges. He enjoys helping clients contemplating or planning transformation, as well as providing hands on interventions for 'in flight' initiatives.

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