By SASCHA GRUMBACH
Constant transformation as a concept is quite self-explanatory. It is the idea that organisations need to reinvent themselves and adapt on a recurring basis based on how the market is evolving. But let’s not delude ourselves.
Change is hard, most probably because when people get too comfortable with their current status, they resist changing their circumstances. This could partly be explained by the fact that our brains resist doing anything that causes a lot of discomfort (mental, physical, or both).
We often change only when our tail is on fire.
The world today is not the same as the world we lived in 10 or 20 years ago. With information increasing at an exponential rate, we not only need to sort the information to determine what is relevant to us but also use this information to adapt and learn.
In the organisational context, this means deciding when to use new services, methodologies and technologies to respond to new challenges. If ‘constant transformation’ is the philosophy, then ‘change management’ would represent the execution and implementation of this philosophy.
Constant transformation as a topic has been particularly close to my heart. I wanted to share some of the challenges that organisations might face while adopting the constant transformation frame of mind:
Challenge 1: Prioritisation
Some of the important issues that almost every founder or entrepreneur has to deal with in the business world today include business growth, research and development (R&D), corporate innovation, sustainability, diversity, cybersecurity and so on. With limited time, resources and human capital, deciding which changes to prioritise is the first challenge you will run into when designing your change strategy.
The problem with grappling with diverse challenges simultaneously is the opportunity cost. If you double down on creating a culture of innovation, you may drop the ball on becoming a more empathetic leader. This could inadvertently create a culture that prioritises results over people.
Focusing exclusively on adopting disruptive new technologies without ensuring that your employees are adequately trained might risk the entire plan of getting the maximum utility out of these advancements.
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Instituting one change is hard enough if you are working as a solopreneur or presiding over a small company. These changes increase manifold in complexity with larger organisations. Many change initiatives do not succeed and also consume substantial amount of resources – be it financial, political or human.
If it’s your first time leading change, then it’s best to start off with your biggest priority and work your way from there.
Short vs long term thinking
Another challenge is weighing up short and long term considerations. Depending on the structure and size of your organisation, you may have certain performance milestones to achieve.
In the case where you aren’t the majority owner of the company, your default focus will be to maximise shareholder value, which often means prioritising short term initiatives or changes that are strictly focused on the bottom line.
The problem with this lies in the fact that what’s best in the short term may not be best in the long term. Some changes take time but are essential to the longevity of your business. Other changes may not have a direct impact on profit, but may enable you to execute further changes more effectively.
Challenge 2: Tradition vs progress
In our recent history, one of the broader societal themes that has been at play is the conflict between tradition and progress. This plays out in all aspects of society when it comes to navigating change.
The academic establishment has historically been critical of new ideas. Teenagers rebel against the authority of their parents and try to create their own path. And in the business world, ‘that’s just how it’s been done’ is the most common rebuttal when it comes to evaluating a change initiative.
However, the challenge here isn’t just how to overcome tradition. The real challenge is being able to strike an appropriate balance between progress and tradition.
With many change initiatives, people are eager to completely disrupt and uproot the status quo. There can be a tendency to demand radical change if the current situation isn’t working, but this isn’t always the best approach.
Sometimes, not everything needs to be changed, there need only be small tweaks and incremental improvements that can lead to greater results. If you change too much of the old, you may lose aspects of your company that made it successful in the first place.
Order and chaos
In addition to preserving the good parts of tradition, you will need to consider how significant changes can disrupt your organisation. Although radical change may be necessary in some cases, not everybody will be comfortable and ready to adapt to the changes you propose.
If change is continuous as with constant transformation, this can be even worse. For instance, if you decide to completely flatten your organisation to increase agility, you may invoke the opposite effect as people aren’t used to self-governance.
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Key managers and leaders may also leave as they may not like their position being stripped away. Change is disruptive in its nature, and too much too fast can cause chaos in your organisation.
Challenge 3: Creating urgency
A problem that you will encounter when initiating change is a lack of urgency. On a logical level, you may realise that a particular change is necessary and beneficial to your business, but without urgency it’s unlikely that the consistent effort needed to implement the change will take place. Some factors that prevent urgency include:
No visible crisis
Most changes take place in response to something problematic, unethical or cumbersome, and as a result, pre-emptively trying to initiate change can be met with a lack of enthusiasm as there is no extreme crisis or shock element involved. This not only reduces urgency, but can also stop change efforts in their tracks from the start.
If there is no crisis, then you as the change leader will have to effectively communicate the compelling need for change. Failing to communicate a sense of urgency, the depth of what’s at stake, and why the change needs to happen pre-emptively will result in inaction or half-hearted attempts.
Be careful with this one though. If advocating for certain changes is not handled skilfully, urgency may only add to anxiety and stress among your team members.
Urgency often comes with added pressure in the form of more responsibilities, targets and additional management. If your employees are already swamped with work, additional work can cause frustration and potential burnout.
Challenge 4: Failing to build a coalition
In order to execute change on a constant basis within your organisation, you will need to build a powerful coalition that understands and embodies the ethos of constant transformation. Without doing so, you will lack the alignment necessary to become a truly adaptive organisation.
However, building a coalition isn’t easy and requires excellent interpersonal skills, change leadership and a logical business case to convince people to join your cause. Here are some of the challenges you have to contend with when building a coalition:
As you may be the first one with the ethos of change and constant transformation, you will need to convince all the stakeholders in your organisation to come on board. Shareholders and executives play key roles in change, but fundamentally it is the middle managers, product teams and individual employees who will be the ones to execute the change on a consistent basis. Each of these groups have their own sets of interests which you will need to effectively speak to.
Lack of purpose
Convincing these stakeholders requires a strong sense of purpose as well as persuasion and negotiation skills. Without a strong purpose, your people will be reluctant to undergo change or may do it reluctantly, which can lead to sabotage or poor results.
All new initiatives in business require a solid business case and a clear measurement of the progress being made. For some changes, it can be hard to quantify the return on investment as easily as others. Even if you can, you may not be able to capture the positive returns on the change as soon as you like. This can lead to doubt, a lack of engagement and a potential revert to the status quo.
Challenge 5: Lack of consolidation
To get the full benefits of a particular change, you need to ensure that it is consolidated and a permanent part of your organisation’s future. One common pitfall of change initiatives is declaring victory too early – perhaps after a few months of success or certain milestones being achieved.
There is a tendency to reduce urgency in these situations, both by people who championed the change and people who resisted it. But this can be a false victory as early success doesn’t guarantee that the change will stick in the long term.
There is a need to continually manage and measure the effects of the change over time, with a particular focus on urgency levels and results.
This problem is even more prevalent if the change is being led off the strength of a charismatic individual. A strong leader may bring about a state of change in the organisation at a point in time, but it may only exist due to that leader’s presence. The risk is that if the change is not embedded into the fabric of the organisation, there is a chance that the change won’t stick.
Challenge 6: Mistaking management for leadership
Positive change cannot occur without strong leadership. Effecting change is mostly a human affair, and humans respond to both logic and emotion. And in many cases, emotions are more powerful. That’s why a strong sense of purpose and a powerful vision are essential ingredients of change. The challenge here is ensuring that you are not only managing change, but leading it first and foremost.
This touches on the general problem regarding leadership vs management, and it’s something that needs to be adopted by everybody who is in a position of power in your organisation. To overcome the natural resistance to change and the multiple other roadblocks, you need strong leadership at all levels of the organisation.
Challenge 7: Lack of alignment
Your coalition will be the first group that backs your change initiative. But ultimately, you will need to generate a company-wide consensus and garner true alignment if you want to achieve lasting change.
Without proper alignment, certain parts of your organisation will be executing the change while others will carry on with business as usual. In some cases, groups may make efforts to sabotage the change if they feel that it is unnecessary or compromising their work in some way.
The lack of alignment with the change typically is due to misaligned interests – individual departments typically want to prioritise their own functions over the organisation as a whole.
Depending on your existing culture and structure, different departments may not be used to collaborating with other departments towards a common goal. This will become even more obvious if you are trying to initiate a change.
Simply put, constant transformation is about staying relevant in a business world that is continuously in flux.
The challenges mentioned above cannot be solved without understanding and communicating a clear purpose, being armed with a purpose-driven and agile team, and the foresight to learn from users and up-and-coming design-led principles. At the end of the day, real organisational change is catapulted with constant transformation and not digital transformation. Technologies of today may not be in vogue tomorrow, but a change mindset and creative team will always be.