There’s a lot of content out there on organizational transformation. It’s the hot topic for business books and articles, supplanting or at least building on the multi-year preoccupation with the speed of change.

By now, if you haven’t noticed things are changing in our world, you’ve been living in a state of blissful ignorance. Most of us are attuned to the disruption theme.

We know forces are converging, new industries and technologies are supplanting old, software is eating the world, and business models are changing the way we consume everything. Now, the question is, what do organizational leaders do about all this change? Naturally, the answer is some variation of: “We have to transform.

As if it were that easy.

There Are No Easy Formulas for Change and Transformation

I chatted recently (podcast interviews forthcoming) with some fascinating individuals/authors who have explored this organizational transformation topic in great detail. Their interesting books are filled with stories of organizations that have rejuvenated their reason for existing by adopting new ways of thinking and new approaches to serving clients. Yet, even with exhaustive research, the authors struggle to offer much more than general directional guidance on how to lead a transformation. It’s one of those, “you know it when you see it” dilemmas.

It’s also really difficult to generalize an approach to a transformation from a set of anecdotes. The variables are unique for each organization.

Successful Transformations are Perfect Storms of the Right Behaviors

This isn’t a criticism. It merely reflects the reality that creating genuine organizational transformation isn’t easily captured in a formula or simple methodology. It’s darned difficult to pull this off, demanding a rare confluence—a perfect storm—of events, behaviors, personalities, and motivations all working to fight the gravitational pull of the old way and traditional thinking.

Sidebar. One of my clients and now a friend has argued with me for years that creative destruction is the way of the world, and yesterday’s firms mostly amble off to that brand graveyard when it’s their time. He submits that real organizational transformation is mostly impossible.

I disagree. However, real organization transformation is white rhino rare.

7 Things that Have to Fall Into Place for Organizational Transformation to Succeed

1. There must be a universal acceptance of the need to change.

Change can’t be seen as politically motivated or the output of an opportunistic new CEO striving to quickly stand-apart from their predecessor. Individuals from top to bottom in the organization have to understand and internalize this need, or, the efforts die like so many other initiatives of the month.

2. Extraordinary leadership matters.

Everything top leadership does, says, and values must focus on engaging and enabling individuals to understand and affect change. There has to be enough guidance (Commander’s Intent) for individuals to understand their role and empower their actions. Building an emotional connection to the need for change may be the most critical issue of all, right before dealing with the next issue—teaching people to think differently.

3. The need to think differently is mission-critical and almost impossible.

Outside perspectives are essential, yet outsiders and their ideas are regularly rejected as foreign invaders. New voices and dormant or quiet voices must enter the discussion, and drawing those in and helping them gain traction takes patience, finesse, and courage. The hard work of thinking differently is often the tripping or stopping point in failed transformations.

4. Process, infrastructure, and bureaucracy are formidable adversaries.

Even if you get the people side right—a longshot—everything the firm has labored to put in place stands in the way of change. Much of this can’t be undone overnight. Top leaders must work tirelessly to reduce or eliminate the sources of friction in the environment to enable change.

5. Betting is part of the transformation process.

Charlene Li, the author of the excellent book, The Disruption Mindset—Why Some Organizations Transform and Others Fail, offers in our forthcoming podcast that the bets aren’t the big, “bet-the-company” type, but rather a continuous stream of small bets. I like her perspective but worry about small bets adding up to a cohesive whole in time to transform before being rendered obsolete.

6. KPIs measuring change must be different than operating KPIs.

Transformation is a game played for the future—and the measures and activities you monitor must reflect the need to nurture and shepherd. While seemingly obvious, I see management teams conflate the present operating issues with the forward-looking transformation work in the same sets of indicators and performance discussions. Invariably, the work on the future looks less tangible and less valuable than today’s work, and leaders lose their resolve in pursuit of budgets and turf.

7. You have to run a smart race.

The need to change needs to be on everyone’s mind, and it has to feel like a race. However, the race is the proverbial marathon, not a sprint. Come out too hard early in the process, and the organization quickly exhausts its collective energy. Pacing involves patience underlying a bit of nervous anxiety about getting there faster. Speed is essential in organizational transformation, but too much speed kills.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

There’s a reason the authors of books on transformation struggle to offer a roadmap. At most, they give us a compass direction. If you’ve lived and led organizational transformation efforts, you know it defies predictability or prescription. Instead, transformation happens because of the right behaviors at the right time from top to bottom, much like an orchestra’s musicians playing the right notes at the right time in the right way. Top leaders catalyze transformation, but everyone else brings it to life.

Art's Signature