Solving the puzzle of transformation

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I’m a sucker for a McKinsey report (the Productivity Imperative for Healthcare Delivery in the United States anyone?), and so given just about every conversation I have with a client is transformation-related, I felt compelled to revisit an article from 2017: ‘The People Power of Transformations’.

While the article confirms a bunch of truisms – deep CEO / C-suite involvement, frequent communication etc – what leaps out is the difference between transformations that deliver improved performance and long-term competitiveness and those that fail correlate closely with frontline engagement. This is interesting given that the data also suggests that just 45% of large organisations bother to engage the frontline in transformations.

And my favourite stat of the lot? That the perception of how successful a transformation is correlates directly with seniority. CEOs lead the way with 34% reporting positively, falling to 23% for senior leaders and then down to just a measly 6% for frontline employees. 

So what gives?

My theory is that the ‘why’ part of the transformation narrative is generally not the problem. Who doesn’t want to work with cool new tools and have more autonomy and less bureaucracy? Things invariably get more complicated when it comes to the ‘how’ of transformation.

This usually involves shifting behaviours and mindset, and often seeing people leave while bringing in new talent. Successful transformations have a higher proportion of existing people in new positions and double the number of new hires than less successful versions. Of the c.50% of employees who stay in the same role, many of them will be on the frontline, and often spectators in what can be an ugly spectacle of power-plays and politics. Hardly surprising then that they’re not great fans.  

So managing this influx of new talent is in my view one of the most important aspects to get right. While hiring should equate to a positive story, for those staying, the new joiners represent an existential threat. They come with new skills, cutting edge experience and on-trend attitudes (not to mention way cooler haircuts and trainers), and as such can make the incumbents look and feel like they’re from another era.

But the truth is, these tribes need each other. The organisational memory locked into the stayers isn’t obsolete, in fact, without it the organisation is likely to crash and burn.

And this is where we see great leadership communication making a real difference. If the stayers feel valued by their leaders, and by the joiners, and the joiners understand the value of the stayers, then both groups can coalesce around common goals.

We’ve seen hard-line counter-culture joiners try to resist the established norms of the organisation, but experience organ rejection as a result. And we’ve also seen stayers resist change with similar outcomes. There is a middle ground, and the fun for leaders is to help find it, hold it and then build on it together.

This acceptance of difference by senior leaders is a massive step – simply papering over the cracks with a unifying slogan won’t wash, whereas celebrating the diverse skills and attitudes that, together, can solve the organisation’s problems, might just bring people on side.

For leaders, this is the lock they need to pick to open the door to successful transformation. In fact that sounds like a whole new McKinsey report right there.  

Colin Hatfield, Founder, Visible Leaders