A few years back I was on a family holiday in Sicily and whilst I was sitting on my sun lounge, sipping a vino, I noticed my husband had spent the better part of an hour in deep conversation with a fellow Sicilian. He returned a few minutes later with a rueful smile on his face. As he hadn’t lived in Sicily since he was a teenager, he was curious about the land of his birth and what had changed. My husband’s newfound friend, a local businessman, was full of interesting anecdotes about how difficult it was to get any meaningful change or progress made, uttering the classic remark…”Sicily would be a great place…if it wasn’t for the Sicilians”. Clearly, this fellow was frustrated and none too happy as some of his aspirations and plans were hampered by the politics of self-interest. When we spoke to other Sicilians, some shared this fellow’s sentiment but others were at the polar opposite in thought and feeling…they were living the dream.

I was reminded of this story when I met a former work colleague last week for a few after-work drinks. It was clear that my friend was stressed as they were in the middle of a transformation impacting many folks within their organisation. My friend echoed the words…”if it wasn’t for the different agendas people have, this transformation would have been delivered last year and I’d have more hair”. Getting people to do things they don’t want is a common and uncomfortable factor when faced with a transformation agenda. This is not groundbreaking news, so why is transformation in the corporate world so difficult?

Having been in the workforce for too many years to count, I’ve seen and been part of some spectacular failures and some wildly inspirational successes. So, what distinguishes the failures from the roaring successes? Well, if you Google the keywords ‘successful transformation’ you’ll get an array of amazing content from incredibly clever people with groundbreaking ideas. Some of the common themes you’ll find that make a successful transformation include;

  • Committed leadership – you need the change to be led from the top…if your leadership team are not united and don’t really believe in the change, then why the hell should their people?
  • Clear purpose and priorities – there has to be a light on the hill to aspire to and a roadmap with a clear path, otherwise, people will keep asking why and what for? Simon Sinek put it very neatly in his inspiring TED Talk on ‘Start with Why’ in which he explains the three questions (Why, What, How) that make up the Golden Circle…the most important being ‘Why’ which is a purpose or belief for your company and the imperative to stay consistent to it in all you do.
  • Compelling communication – you need to tell the story, share the vision, send clear messages, invite feedback…then rinse and repeat. Success lies in the way organisations and leaders think, act and communicate.
  • Solid delivery plan – sounds like a no brainer but you need a plan to get from A to B…but you also need to have some flexibility in the plan to cope with working and delivering in an ever-changing and turbulent environment…did someone say Agile delivery?

“Whilst all of these elements are absolutely essential to a successful transformation, for anyone that’s been at the receiving end of a corporate transformation you’ll know that there’s nothing easy about it. There’s a lot of emotion involved simply because major transformations will impact people’s livelihoods, their identity and their best-laid plans for the future. I’ve seen transformations go pear-shaped because leadership forgot to focus on the key ingredient….people.”

One of my first lessons in transformational change occurred early in my career when I was part of a large technology transformation for a bank seeking to divest itself of legacy platforms. As a ‘junior burger’ project manager, I was tasked with delivering new front end software bolted onto the revamped data warehouse. I was proud of myself, having followed the early project management mantra of ‘on time, on budget and within scope’. I remember at the end of the project I presented my final report to the Project Director…a fellow of indeterminate years, bushy eyebrows and the gravelly voice of someone that smoked a packet of Camels a day. After listening to me yap about how amazing I was in delivering my piece of the transformation puzzle, he looked at me from under those bushy eyebrows and said, ‘Caroline, the operation was a success but the patient died’. Not understanding what he meant, he gently suggested that I invite feedback from the project team I managed but more important, seek feedback from the people who had to use the software and those who had to support it.

Well, this was a watershed moment for me. The project team ran for the hills when they saw me in the corridors and some said they wouldn’t work for me again as I drove them so hard in my quest to deliver this software beast. The users and supporters of the software said it was a piece of rubbish that added hours, if not days to their job. If I had listened more to the people impacted and asked more curious questions to seek to understand, then the end-state solution would have been a tad different. Note to self since that spectacular fail…must collaborate, co-create and communicate with people impacted by proposed change.

McKinsey and Co nailed it in a great article published in February 2017 called ‘The People Power of Transformations’ that summarised results of one of their global surveys on organisational transformations. This article was powerful as it emphasised the importance of the role and commitment of people in transformational change. Their key findings on successful transformations included the following;

CEO buy-in is a critical and therefore expected part of a transformation. Indeed, when asked which role has had the greatest impact on transformation results, respondents across the organization cite CEOs most often;

  • In successful transformations, engagement of employees at all levels is critical…you must involve all of the people;
  • Regular communication is important as is understanding that different people will receive or absorb messages differently. So, how you send messages should vary as should the channels you use; and last
  • Success is likelier when employees play their own unique roles. When people are part of the transformation rather than it being done to them when there’s an opportunity to move around and when there’s an opportunity to bring in talent are key elements to consider. However, success will occur only when all involved in the change have a genuine commitment and buy-in to the change.

A wise person once shared with me that the beginning of a transformational change starts with;

  • A conversation where you get to know people to understand what makes them tick and to understand what motivates them;
  • Understanding will then usually progress to the start of people liking and/or respecting one another;
  • Once people like one another, acceptance and trust will follow; and then
  • Doors will open with transformational possibilities being endless because you’re working with each other not against each other.