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The 10 must dos for a successful transformation

One of the most common questions I get is, “how do you set yourself up for a successful transformation?”

The main problem with this question is that it assumes that there is a cookie-cutter approach to driving transformation initiatives. The same type of transformation in two different companies will likely unfold differently since the starting points for both companies differ as well. Also, it is naive to assume that because an approach worked for you in the past, it will work again in a different environment. In order to be successful, you need to read the environment before committing to an approach.

That said, there are a number of elements that support a successful transformation:

  1. Unwavering commitment and accountability from the CEO. Lack of commitment from the CEO is the root cause of the majority of transformation failures. It almost guarantees failure because the hard decisions won't be made in a timely manner, and because people will feel like they can choose whether to embrace the transformation. It may seem “safe” for the CEO to delegate the accountability of a transformation - and then blame and replace the leader who can’t deliver. But it is not the right thing to do. Choosing to delegate the leadership of the transformation is okay, as long as the full accountability remains with the CEO.

  2. Clear and inspiring goals. Put simply, you need to know where you are going and why. If you don’t have a clear destination, then every step is a step wasted. Without clear goals and objectives, you won't be able to articulate a compelling story nor evaluate your success. Employees must be able to relate to the vision you are aiming for - they need to want to touch it, feel it, experience it. You need to quantify what success looks like so that others can clearly see your progress and ensure that the strategy and goals must be discussed and aligned with your board members and executive team so that all leaders can consistently articulate the same story.

  3. Effective governance. Transformation initiatives are as big and complex as they come, and you need someone (or, more likely, someones) fully dedicated to overseeing them. Without effective governance, your transformation will stall and become a continuous source of aggravation for everyone involved. The governance team will be your first line of defense to ensure things are on track. They will own the plan, integrated customer journey, tracking against the key metrics and financial objectives, status reports, funding requests, escalation of issues, pre and post-mortems, overall project cadence, logistics of the big meetings, and several other things. If you have great people in your governance team, they will also be able to parachute into the struggling workstreams and help bring them back on track.

  4. Right team. Here is the issue that every company faces: several of the people you need in the transformation are the same “usual suspects” involved in other key initiatives across the company. Since cloning is still not an option, you will need to find a balance of who stays in the core business, who will split their time (more like doing double shifts), and who will be dedicated to the transformation effort. Hold off on including the right people and the decisions made by the transformation team will be sub-optimal and will often have to be reworked. You will need to get representation from all relevant levels within the company. And, hopefully you will have thought ahead and hired a few folks with a strong background in transformations to complement your team.

  5. Rewards tied to your goals. You will have a very hard time bringing your team along unless you tie people’s pay to the success of the transformation. Whether you like it or not, a number of leaders think with their pockets, which may cause them to prioritize their compensation (usually tied to the core business) over everything else. Thus, a meaningful part of the CEO and executive team’s comp should be tied to the transformation's success. You must also consider how to reward team members for the progress of the overall initiative and for extraordinary contributions within the workstreams.

  6. Well-articulated plan. For starters, you will need to decide whether you will follow an agile or waterfall approach (agile has been growing in popularity and becoming more common in non-IT projects). Once the decision is made, your governance team will work with each of the workstream teams to develop a comprehensive plan that should clearly contemplate: the journey of each of the stakeholders, key initiatives, key milestones, owners, deadlines, investment required, interdependencies, and risks. Failure to develop an effective plan can lead to several unpleasant "surprises" along the way, costing you precious time and momentum. You must always have a clear understanding of your critical path and everything that can impact it.

  7. Appropriate level of funding. As plans are formulated, you will have a better sense of the funding required to execute the transformation. If you want to be safe, add a decent buffer to your initial estimate - teams will learn a lot more a few months in and, inevitably, they will need money for additional activities. The last thing you want is your team sitting idle losing momentum because you failed to secure the money needed for the transformation ahead of time.

  8. Supportive culture. You will need to foster a culture of high accountability and ownership, transparency, and open mindedness within the transformation team. Without accountability and ownership, workstreams will stall and lose momentum. Without transparency, you won’t be able to keep people engaged or quickly address issues. Without open mindedness, people won’t want to take risks or try new things, and they will take new ideas as criticism to the way they currently work.

  9. Proactive change management. When a transformation starts to gain momentum you will need to find a way to keep everyone excited about your progress. The most common mistake is to focus on the team involved in the transformation, since they are in the “know”. You will need to think about the rest of the company - and depending on the scope of the transformation, about customers and/or vendors as well. Not paying enough attention to all stakeholders may lead to resentment and disengagement from employees for not "feeling included" in the new vision, and confusion and frustration from customers/vendors who don’t understand the rationale for the change.

  10. Effective feedback loop. There are a lot of moving parts to make a transformation successful. Despite your best intentions and efforts, the transformation can quickly go off the rails. You need to be prepared for that and plan for how to handle the issues that arise. Failure to do so will quickly demotivate your transformation team and lead other employees to cast doubt on the entire effort. Celebrate and document the lessons learned and create an effective mechanism to share those with the workstreams. You also need to constantly ask for your teams’ feedback on how things have been working - and be ready to adjust as needed.

Ignoring any of these elements will have profound implications on how your transformation will progress (or not). Despite being daunting, transformations can be successful if you take the necessary steps ahead of time - and remain flexible to adjust as you go. I can’t think of anything else that will stretch your team as much while making both the company and the employees better, not to mention relevant for the years to come.

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