Transformation Is Not Fast

Difficulty and complexity are two things human beings tend to avoid. For the most part, people seem to be much happier with concepts that are easy on the brain, take little time to implement, and have the promise of immediate return on investment. This tendency gives rise to quick fixes that are simple and low-cost. The problem with most of these approaches applied to transformation is that transformation does not come with speed or simplicity. I know many organizations that wish it did! It would make it so much easier in my consulting practice, and it would provide services to organizations making transformational changes. Unfortunately, it just doesn’t work out that way.

Much has been written about our society’s fascination with fast food, fast service, and fast business results. We expect practically everything to be available at a drive-up window. The expectation of ease is nurtured by claims of fast-acting products promising miracle cures for everything from baldness to gastrointestinal distress. The pattern extends to consultants’ claims of dramatic improvements with just a few simple changes. Nothing ends a sales conversation faster than the transaction’s exceeding the complexity tolerance or time expectations of the executive making the buying decision. The old adage about the confused mind always saying no would suggest that street-smart salespeople should keep their presentations at an easily comprehended level, even if it means oversimplification and an impossible timeline. Historically, business schools and consultants have attempted to reduce the complexity of situations by using the two-by-two matrix that converts business problems into four quadrants. The limitation with this approach is that there are more than two variables in play at all times in organizational transformation, and the gradation of the variables is not binary.

M. Scott Peck makes the point that as soon as we give up on the expectation that life should be easy, life actually gets easier. Einstein’s point about theories being as simple as possible and no simpler suggests that we avoid dumbing down our approach to issues that are at a level of complexity above the two-by-two matrix. Not sure about you, but for me, I have recognized the irony that for someone to use a two-by-two box to illustrate the need to think outside the box defies basic rational thought.

My goal in engagements has been to provide a path toward transformation by using concepts that are as simple as possible and no simpler, while also recognizing that what I’m proposing may seem difficult. However, once you embrace the difficulty of organizational transformation, things will become easier.

During my consulting engagements, to bring some visibility to how transformation can be orchestrated, I’ve created a model that attempts to link the parts and layers of an organization. It’s not a matter of following lines and boxes in a process diagram. There is no formula or linear sequential path to transformation. In my experience, transformation is about orchestrating multiple elements, like a symphony with a few aspects of jazz. To accomplish transformation, one must work at seven “C” levels of the organization:

  • Core: the center of the organization definition
  • Culture: the lens through which things get interpreted and accomplished
  • Context: the framing of the organization
  • Capability: the fundamental mechanisms for making things happen
  • Capacity: the level of demand that can be satisfied
  • Competency: the level and type of organizational expertise
  • Customer: the focus on outcomes for customers rather than on outputs

I was recently knee-deep in a transformation initiative with a mid-sized company. What I noticed was that when a significant shift in customer outcome occurs—whether it is by way of a sweeping change in the market demand or in the market structure, or by way of desire on the part of the organization itself—it touches off the need for transformation. When this company refocused on the need for end-to-end solutions instead of point products, the changes to the organization rippled through the layers of the organization, working back from the customer layer toward the core:

  • Customer outcome: from delivered product to turnkey solution
  • Competency: from product design to solution architecture
  • Capacity: from product manufacturing to system delivery
  • Capability: from manufacturing process to project management
  • Context: from product cost to system total cost of ownership
  • Culture: from control to collaboration
  • Core: from product maker to system provider

This is a greatly simplified outline, of course, and a lot of this work is still ongoing there, but it shows how a change in focus at the customer layer implies changes all the way to the core of the organization. When leaders declare that they are going to modify the outcome target for the business, they are really saying that everything including the company brand is now in play. And with the company’s brand in play, the link between people’s identity and the organization is now also at play. In other words, transformation puts the elements of the company at all seven levels into flux.

By looking more closely at the levels of the organization, you can begin to see the many aspects that must be orchestrated in transformation.

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