Culture, business change and sustaining transformation

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If there’s one word companies seemingly can’t get away from (and no, it’s not ‘Brexit’) – it has to be this one: transformation. It’s what all organisations supposedly need to do – digitally, culturally, or product-wise, to be able to compete in our increasingly VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world). And yet while new data from KPMG finds most companies now claim to be going through some form of transformation, 75% of CEOs say it’s overwhelming admitting they have significant doubt about whether the transformation they are doing is actually efficient or indeed strategic.

That’s why Eton Bridge Partners hosted a group of CIOs (often the custodians of transformation projects) at its most recent Technology roundtable event. Guests were asked to specifically debate what transformation means to them, and perhaps, unsurprisingly, it generated a divergence of opinion.

“Lots of organisations go into transformation not really knowing what they’re doing,” decried one CIO to start things off. Another said: “Everyone, it seems, is transforming. I feel we almost need to reduce the noise around everything being transformational, to get to what is ‘truly’ a transformed way of doing things.”

One word, lots of meanings

Initial sentiments were that the very word ‘transformation’ needs to be saved for ‘great’ change rather than everyday evolution. “You have to know what you’re transforming from and ‘to’, with hard metrics pointing to a number of things that have changed,” reinforced another. And yet while eminently sensible, it was this, it seems, that let the proverbial cat out of the bag, generating a spirited debate about whether transformation only ever describes an end-point activity; whether it’s actually always continual, or whether it’s gradual iteration, or by definition, has to be big-bang in nature.

“Isn’t transformation always happening?,” asked another. “What’s improvement and what’s actual transformation?”

Definition defines strategy

While it might seem like obtusely splitting hairs, some of the panel argued defining actual frames of reference is vital – especially if a key part of making transformation a success is actual employees – to buy into it. Said one panelist: “My view is that if you transform, you do it once, otherwise employees’ won’t buy into it.” Added another: “Otherwise they’ll be change fatigue and staff will reject it.” But this too drew a clear difference of opinion. “Isn’t transformation about getting to a place where people see this as part of their job; being prepared to adapt continually?” asked one.

It’s culture too

If it is, then transformation (as widely agreed) – involves understanding another nebulous HR-term ‘culture’, and seeing how the two interplay. According to one, it’s arguably this that drives strategy too: “Transformation is about changing the culture, so that change is something people are happy to always do,” one delegate proposed, adding: “Pretty much any strategy you use to create change can work – it’s just that you have to stick to it. Too often, transformation gets difficult, and then the strategy is allowed to deviate. To achieve transformation, whatever your strategy is, you need to stick to it.”

Transformation is typically necessary because a business faces a burning platform that needs urgent attention. But whether organisations always have the ability to carefully explain this to staff was another moot point. “The luxury of time to take employees through a transformational journey is often not there,” argued one CIO. “The problem,” added another, “is that the burning platform approach does not create a positive message about transformation – people need positive energy to embrace change.”

But is this merely a pipedream? “Sometimes the burning platform is the only way,” argued another. “If the external environment remains challenging, it’s easier to maintain a narrative about why change is needed. When the market picks up, and things appear to get better, pressure comes off the necessity to transform.”

Leaders need trusted partners

Despite disagreeing on how to communicate transformation, and whether it should be an always-on state or just a single obvious transition of the business, panelists did concur that CIOs need to be close the CEO, and they also need to act as trusted partners in the process.

This means, they said, being empowered to choose the changes that makes the biggest impact. “One thing that’s critical is the ability to be able to change IT supplier/vendors – especially if the business is going through a substantial digital transformation,” said one CIO. “Vendors tend to have a way of treating you that pervades in how things are done in your company. If you’re trying to change the way things are done, then you need to get in new suppliers that will help this happen, almost by stealth.”

As one delegate elegantly put it, “transformation must be about doing things differently – and not the same thing with different people.” He believed this so much, that his strategy was quite specific – to bring in new people that will  ‘infiltrate’ and act as change agents – and at a very specific ratio. “I tend to find I need a new person for every 60 existing people to cultivate real change, and cascade it through,” he said. “Those that don’t want to be part of transformation tend to leave, and that’s fine too, because the people who are left readily want to take on the new culture.” He added: “Most people do just want to do a great job.”

Keeping your eye on the prize

During transformation, one delegate advised that all the time, “we must ask what it is that we’re doing that impacts the transformation we’re trying to achieve,” to ensure the process doesn’t go down an unwanted path, or that unnecessary time is being wasted on elements that don’t bring the change.

Which all sort of brought things full-circle: “If you don’t have a vision for change, how do you know what you are transforming into?” said one panelist. “You need to have enough leadership in place to explain what you’re doing, and so you can keep on doing it.”

No-one, it seems, believes transformation is easy, but if there’s one thing everyone is arguably agreed on, it’s the fact it does need people to know what it is, and see it through, and concentrate on what matters. As one concluded: “Remember, you can spend so much time focusing on the change itself – the systems, the processes, the internal politics – that you can forget bringing people with it. The former is important; but the latter is even more-so.”