Want to change the culture of your organization; give it a complete transformation? Who doesn’t? But, when do you really know that the time is right for such an ambitious undertaking? At the core of transformation experiences are both externally-oriented business model changes, and, at the same time, possibly redesigning the corporate culture to best support the new business models. In many ways, it is the cultural piece that is the most challenging.
Almost everyone, practicing managers and academics alike, agree that the most successful transformations are initiated before the competitive context requires them. Think about Apple in its Steve Jobs’ years or Intel in its Andy Grove era. They both led their competitors by constantly forcing change upon their industry before anyone even wanted it—before the full profit-harvesting of product maturity could fully be realized. In most cases, their cultures were eventually well-suited for such dramatic rethinking of not only what work needed to be done, but how it could be done in a fundamentally different fashion, as well. Yet, they succeeded, repeatedly, because moving faster than their competitors resulted in their being the authors of the next chapter in their industry’s history, as well as destabilizing everyone else in the process.
Scott D. Anthony, well-known strategic advisor and author, has concluded that the best approach is to “start before you need to… by the time the data suggests you must absolutely transform, it is often too late to do so.” So, what early warning signals can we rely upon to determine the right time to launch a serious organizational transformation?
Chris Rangen, co-founder and CEO of StrategyTools, argues that there are three classic types of starts to a transformation journey: Shock, Shift and Evolution. Shock is associated with an involuntary start to transformation, which occurs by being caught by surprise by external events; you don’t ever want to find yourself in such a situation! Shift is typically associated with a business model pivoting and requires recognizing that legacy assets of an organization are no longer an advantage, but a liability, and need to be changed fast. In many cases this is doable, but it is always uncomfortable. Evolution is preferred of the three, because it allows for a thoughtful and thorough strategic reassessment of an organization’s purpose, mission, business model, and, ultimately, culture.
In all three cases, Scott Anthony has correctly observed that “To do something different, you have to do something different,” so having sufficient time to truly do something different, and to do it right, becomes an essential prerequisite for transformation success, and while external signals might be most useful for signaling the changing customer needs that will require rethinking what the organization is doing, it is the internal, cultural situation within an organization that will point to what is necessary for redesigning how the organization should work; and that is really what transformation is all about.
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To learn more about knowing when an organization is ripe for transformation, I recently spoke with Antonio Boadas, Chief Communications Officer at the Haier Group’s GE Appliances (GEA) in Louisville, Ky., when we both were on a recent Menlo College Rendanheyi Research Institute webinar discussing Enterprise Transformation.
Antonio is an avid observer of transformation efforts, a key figure in GEA’s ongoing transformation, and formerly a Global Communications Leader with Procter & Gamble, with deep expertise in emerging markets. As a result, he is no stranger to a variety of transformation experiences.
Based on this experience, Boadas offers ten signs of when the culture of an organization cries out for transformation:
1. When your org chart looks like a Christmas tree, six weeks after the holiday season—Weighed down by all sorts of ornamentation that was once glittery but now no longer purposeful, and empty of all the vitality that characterized the tree when you first bought it.
2. When you are invited to a meeting to discuss what you’ll say in the next meeting—Are you devoting more time to the cosmetics and presentation of an idea than to the idea itself?
3. When you spend more time creating PowerPoint than running projects—Is talking about what you are going to do, effectively more important than actually doing it?
4. When the Finance Department defines your budget—This is not about Finance as a function, but, as Antonio suggests, he has chosen a familiar stereotype of situations where your project is defined and approved by people who are far away from the action, and may not even understand the proposal, to make this signal feel more personal.
5. When you feel you need to lobby HR to ensure career progression—Is who you know becoming more important than what you do or how you do it?
6. When you don’t have anything interesting to say about your day at work to your friends or family—When your work environment is so constrained that you are embarrassed to talk about it with the people closest to you. When you have lost the pride in your daily activities that you once had
7. When tenure is more important than performance—For rank and time on the job to count in critical decision-making, they should stand for the accumulation of insight and experience, and not simply be a marker of aging. Wisdom about the past can be overvalued for its utility for the future.
8. When playbooks are considered sacred teachings—Playbooks are often little more than historical reviews of lessons learned from fighting the last battle. Such hindsight typically adds little value to preparing for the future in a fast-moving world.
9. When Diversity and Inclusion is a corporate program and not a natural way of work—More ideas are always better than fewer, and different minds are always better than more of the same. Diversity and inclusion are our best chances to improve the vitality and differentiation in our ideas. They should be an instinctual way of life, not something that has to be built into the way we work.
10. When you are treated like a number or a machine and not as an individual with values, passions, aspirations, capabilities and the desire to create value—Innovation and transformation are all about people. It is the needs of people that make such change necessary, and it is people who will ensure that such efforts succeed or not. When emotion is lost in work decisions, in favor of rationality, out also goes our chance for seeing passion at work. Treating your colleagues, customers and co-creators as opportunities for greater involvement, novelty and adventure, rather than merely as resources or assets, is an easy way to become more successful in achieving the change you all desire.
Do any of these sound familiar? If they do, Antonio Boadas’s experience suggests that “maybe now is the time to finally talk seriously about transformation.” Keep in mind, that these are symptoms, not the actual causes of dysfunction, and so such recognition is only the starting point of whatever changes must come next. Boadas believes, however, that “once the transformation begins, all of the existing dysfunctions should be addressed simultaneously, rather than trying to solve such problems sequentially. All cylinders won’t necessarily run at the same pace, which can create frustration for change instigators, as well as some confusion within the organization, but if the effort is successful, you can change the entire character of the organization, and deliver the promise of the new business models.”
Bill Fischer has an ongoing consulting relationship with the Haier Group, owner of GE Appliances.