Have you ever noticed when you ask someone to talk about a change they're making for the better in their personal lives, they're often really energetic?
Whether it's training for a marathon, picking up an old hobby, or learning a new skill,
for most people, self-transformation projects occupy a very positive emotional space.
Self-transformation is empowering, energizing, even exhilarating.
When it comes to self-transformation, you can't help but get a sense of the excitement.
But there's another type of transformation that occupies a very different emotional space.
The transformation of organizations. If you're like most people, when you hear the words "Our organization is going to start a transformation," you're thinking, "Uh-oh." "Layoffs."
The blood drains from your face, your mind goes into overdrive, frantically searching for someplace to run and hide.
Well, you can run, but you really can't hide. Most of us spend the majority of our waking hours
involved in organizations. And due to changes in globalization, advances in technology, and other factors, the reality is our organizations are constantly having to adapt.
In fact, I call this the era of "always-on" transformation. That may sound exhausting to hear.
Particularly if we continue to approach the transformation of organizations the way we always have been. But because we can't hide, we need to sort out two things.
First, why is a transformation so exhausting? And second, how do we fix it?
First of all, let's acknowledge that change is hard. People naturally resist change, especially when it's imposed on them. But there are things that organizations do that make change even harder and more exhausting for people than it needs to be. Leaders often wait too long to act. As a result, everything is happening in crisis mode. Which, of course, tends to be exhausting. Or, given the urgency, what they'll do is they'll just focus on the short-term results, but that doesn't give any hope for the future. Or they'll just take a superficial, one-off approach, hoping that they can return back to business as usual as soon as the crisis is over.
This kind of approach is kind of the way some students approach preparing for standardized tests. In order to get test scores to go up, teachers will end up teaching to the test.
Now, that approach can work; test results often do go up. But it fails the fundamental goal of education: to prepare students to succeed over the long term. So given these obstacles,
what can we do to transform the way we transform organizations so rather than being exhausting, it's actually empowering and energizing?
To do that, we need to focus on five strategic imperatives, all of which have one thing in common: putting people first. The first imperative for putting people first is to inspire through purpose. Most transformations have financial and operational goals. These are important and they can be energizing to leaders, but they tend not to be very motivating to most people in the organization. To motivate more broadly, the transformation needs to connect with a deeper sense of purpose.
Take LEGO for example. The LEGO Group has become an extraordinary global company.
Under their very capable leadership, they've actually undergone a series of transformations.
While each of these has had a very specific focus, the North Star, linking and guiding all of them, has been Lego's powerful purpose: inspire and develop the builders of tomorrow.
Expanding globally? It's not about increasing sales, but about giving millions of additional children access to LEGO building bricks.
Investment and innovation? It's not about developing new products, but about enabling more children to experience the joy of learning through play. Not surprisingly, that deep sense of purpose tends to be highly motivating to LEGO's people.
The second imperative for putting people first is to go all in. Too many transformations are nothing more than head-count cutting exercises; layoffs under the guise of transformation.
In the face of relentless competition, it may well be that you will have to take the painful decision
to downsize the organization, just as you may have to lose some weight in order to run a marathon. But losing weight alone will not get you across the finish line with a winning time.
To win you need to go all in. Rather than just cutting costs, you need to think about initiatives
that will enable you to win in the medium term, initiatives to drive growth, actions that will fundamentally change the way the company operates, and very importantly, investments to develop the leadership and the talent.
Thirdly, enable people with the capabilities that they need to succeed during the transformation and beyond. Over the years I've competed in a number of triathlons. You know, frankly, I'm not that good, but I do have one distinct capability; Let’s look at cycling, running, and swimming. Real triathletes know that each leg -the swim, the bike, the run -really requires different capabilities, tools, skills, and techniques. Likewise, when we transform organizations, we need to be sure that we're giving our people the skills and the tools they need along the way.
Chronos, a global software company, recognized the need to transfer from building products -
software products -to build software as a service. To enable its people to take that transformation, first of all, they invested in new tools that would enable their employees to monitor the usage of the features as well as customer satisfaction with the new service.
They also invested in skill development, so that their employees would be able to resolve customer service problems on the spot.
And very importantly, they also reinforced the collaborative behaviors that would be required
to deliver an end-to-end seamless customer experience. Because of these investments,
rather than feeling overwhelmed by the transformation, Chronos employees actually felt energized and empowered in their new roles.
In the era of "always-on" transformation, change is a constant.
My fourth imperative is to instill a culture of continuous learning. When Satya Nadella became the CEO of Microsoft in February 2014, he embarked on an ambitious transformation journey to prepare the company to compete in a mobile-first, cloud-first world. This included changes to strategy, the organization, and very importantly, the culture. Microsoft's culture at the time was one of the silos and internal competition -not exactly conducive to learning.
Nadella took this head-on. He rallied his leadership around his vision for a living, learning culture, shifting from a fixed mindset, where your role was to show up as the smartest person in the room, to a growth mindset, where your role was to listen, to learn, and to bring out the best in people. Well, early days, Microsoft employees already noticed this shift in the culture -clear evidence of Microsoft putting people first.
Lastly, in a transformation, a leader needs to have a vision, a clear roadmap with milestones, and then you need to hold people accountable for results.
In other words, you need to be directive. But in order to capture the hearts and minds of people,
you also need to be inclusive. Inclusive leadership is critical to putting people first.
In the era of "always-on" transformation, organizations are always going to be transforming.
But doing so does not have to be exhausting. We owe it to ourselves, to our organizations, and to society more broadly to boldly transform our approach to transformation.
To do that, we need to start putting people first.