Six Tactics That Improve Organizational Transformation

Many companies find it hard to transform themselves in difficult circumstances. Under pressure, many do not use proven tactics for implementing change. Instead, they tend toward secrecy and use small groups of trouble-shooters to plan the transformation rather than involve the wider organization and set clear, widely communicated aspirations and targets.

As more and more companies face pressure to transform their performance, it is crucial for them to understand how proven change tactics increase their chances of success and how to avoid approaches that undermine many transformation efforts.

organizational transformation

So, what works?

Something quite different, what is called an “emergent” approach to change. Derived from the study of “complex adaptive systems”—structures that can rapidly adapt to altered contexts where no single individual can call the shots—here are six tips that enable you to do this well, accompanied by examples of what good looks like.  

1. Set a clear, compelling overarching intention

When working emergently you can be a little loose with your vision, no need to have everything worked out in detail. For, in unprecedented contexts, how can anyone figure out the precise answer in advance! Rather, capture hearts and minds with a magnetic pull towards purpose. For example, “to move to upper quartile performance in our industry so that we provide cleaner, cheaper fuel to our customers” would be an example of a clear, compelling intention.

2. Have a few “hard rules”

Make sure that you give clear guidance as to expected behavior – what’s it going to take to win. Such rules minimize ambiguity and enable independent decision-making, galvanizing the whole entity into action. Far from controlling, these rules can be clarifying and liberating. These hard rules worked beautifully across one global organization of 27 far-flung countries, “work horizontally across silo’s, not escalate decisions up the hierarchy”, “be positive and requiring to the centre”, “be thorough, robust and quick”.

3. Have monomaniacal focus on the “ripe issues”

Nothing beats time running out to get to know what matters. And where there’s most heat and noise, unmet needs, disturbance – there is energy for action. This is not about quick fixes, but identifying the few overarching priorities that will carry the system forward towards a new future - and getting all agendas lined up to them. Very often in fast-learning emergent systems, simply getting transparent costs data owned and shared at local sites - and out of the hands of just the central control function – can turn out to be the single biggest factor in improving performance.

4. Leverage networked cells

Emergent change is a bit like virus spreading. You need to locate groups of people who are enthusiastically up for doing things differently, encourage rapid experimentation in these hot-spots, and then quickly spread the positive deviance from there. Join up across boundaries, establish hyper-connectivity and information flow. Rapid change spreads via horizontal networks, not vertical hierarchy. One exemplar of this is an organization which, in each month, requested each manufacturing site around the world to post three requests for help from their peers, and three offers to help others. This establishes a rich, empowered learning culture.

5. Work step by step

Emergent change in unprecedented contexts is what we call “now-and-next” change. Knowing the intention, working within the hard rules, getting the networked cells focussed on the ripe issues, you then pretty much must “press play and see what happens”. Oh-so-difficult to do when time is running out and the ego is straining for a neatly laid out plan! This is not about short-termism, but instead being able, within the longer-term intent, to rapidly adapt action as changed circumstances and enhanced learning occurs. Like navigating the long winding Mississippi river, all you can do is plot your course one bend at a time.

6. Finally, take care of self

Constant external pressure requires deep inner stillness if it’s to lead to break through not break down. It can be described as leaders being able to “be in the eye of the storm”. All true movement can only come from a place of stillness, still moving. If you can’t be a witness to and regulator of your inner mental and emotional states, you’ll end up unconsciously repeating your story, staying stuck. It’s therefore imperative that leadership teams cultivate the inner capacities required to pull off large scale change under pressure.

In summary, leading organizational transformation is fraught with complexity and pressure. It is never effort-free, but it can become more effort-less. And the route to get there is to pay as much attention to the how of the change (change approach and leader skill required) as to the what (the agenda for change).

Ben Laker is Professor of Leadership at Henley Business School, and Expert Commentator of Political Affairs at Bloomberg and Sky News. Deborah Rowland is a leading thinker, speaker, writer, coach and practitioner in the leadership of large complex change. She has personally led change in major global corporations including BBC Worldwide, Gucci Group, PepsiCo and Shell. In the 2017 Thinkers50 Radar Deborah was named as one of the generation of management thinkers changing the world of business. She is the co-author with Professor Malcolm Higgs of Sustaining Change: Leadership That Works (Wiley, 2008), and now author of the best-seller, Still Moving: How to Lead Mindful Change (Wiley, 2017).

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