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Beware the Thieves of Transformation

The Thieves of Transformation are what I call the barriers that prevent successful and sustainable transformations. These barriers fall into 4 primary categories: political and cultural, organizational, financial and people-related.

There is no single barrier that is present in every transformation, and likewise, it is rare to only have one barrier in any transformation. Once you know the barriers, you can watch for them and identify mitigation strategies that work in your culture, so the transformation can move forward successfully.

Political and Cultural Barriers

Politics and culture. The words are bandied about in organizations large and small. “It’s all political here; it’s who you know, not what you know.” “That won’t be successful in our culture.” “We do things differently around here.” “Managing up is the key to success here.”

How are politics and culture defined? Politics is a word for the way people behave and make decisions. It is managing relationships to achieve something. It is working the informal influence and power channels to get results. Culture is the behaviors and beliefs characteristic of a particular organization. Culture is the organism within which the work is done.

Politics in an organization often work to keep the current state in place, to advocate today’s position, to protect the status quo. Pockets of power control the flow of information. With little shared information, the organization struggles to move forward in a unified direction. Decisions need to be made where someone or something wins and others may not, which brings out the politics.

Informal power positions are often not visible. Robert Herbold, former COO of Microsoft, spoke of the fiefdom syndrome as the very human tendency of people to protect their turf and create bureaucracy in order to become important and indispensable; to isolate themselves from the larger organization; to worry more about defending their turf and protecting the status quo than moving the organization forward.

Peter Drucker, management consultant, famously said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”, meaning the culture of any organization shapes everything: how work is done, how success is framed and which behaviors are rewarded. Culture does not necessarily come down from the top; it is usually built from the ground up. It is how the collective force of the way people work shapes the environment. People drive the culture—period.

Organizational barriers

Many transformations are started with much fanfare. It is the new way, the path to the future. And then what the people feel is loss: loss of colleagues, money ripped out, more work with less. Transformation becomes another word for hard change. Transformation becomes a bad word, a negative behavior, in the organization.

One key organizational barrier is when work is focused nearly 100% on the current state, on running today’s business. The world is changing while the organization is navel-gazing. The work being done on the future state, growing and changing for tomorrow, if done, is separate and often specially funded. There is little to no connection between the two. The organization is stuck in Steady State Land as the world around them shifts.

Another organizational barrier is the inability to understand the common vision, the collective Forward Shift Point. Individuals and groups are moving in different directions, with different goals and needs. The energy for the transformation is not harnessed effectively.

Shifting the organization to a way of working in which change is constant and evolving means there is a perpetual learning curve to a new way. Continuous learning is one challenge that can be managed relatively easily with the right focus. Much harder to manage is the fear of change, any change. People react to change in a defined way: fear, interest, understanding, acceptance. The organization must be able to continuously move people through these stages, over and over and over again.

Financial barriers

Transformation is not free. Transformation is not usually accomplished with new or found money, people or other resources. A colleague, who is a turn-around specialist, says “The future is built on the past”. There is always a foundation of the culture, working norms and politics of getting the work done.

There are three primary investment levers available to any organization: money, people and time. These levers fluctuate over time. Is your organization cash-rich or resource-rich? Is the organization ahead of tomorrow’s needs or chasing them from behind? How is the wealth distributed between today’s work and tomorrow’s work?

Funding a transformation is difficult. The reality is that most investment dollars must come from monies already being spent on today’s work, which must be minimized to fund tomorrow’s work. Who wants to give up a hard-earned budget of monies already allocated to being successful today? In addition, personal compensation models are often not aligned to working on tomorrow. This is why shared goals involving today and tomorrow are critical. Leaders must decide collectively what is important tomorrow, support stopping today’s work where possible, and actively reframe people and the organizations to be relevant tomorrow.

Sometimes the monies the transformation initiatives are supposedly harvesting have already been removed from the operating budget for the same time period. The work required to stop the spending is deemed unimportant because there is no direct financial gain; it is considered yesterday’s news. A negative work environment for those charged with finding the savings ensues.

People are smart and intuitive. They know what cost reduction is no matter the label. The primary challenge with the financial side of transformation is that all too often, there is no connection between the money being removed from the organization and the money being invested in new capabilities to be relevant tomorrow.

People Barriers

Change is done by people, for people. Every person has personal needs that often differ from the organizational needs. Needs drive behaviors, which drive actions.

People barriers can be broken into two categories: individual and group ones. Individual barriers are behaviors that individuals do, or perhaps do not do, when dealing with change. Group barriers are ways people behave within groups to either accelerate or inhibit moving forward.

People as Individuals Barriers

What’s in it for me? Change is personal and this foundational question must be answered satisfactorily. In any change involving more than one person, there are two WIIF: What’s in it for me (M)? and What’s in it for us (U)? Fear of the change increases when there is little to no understanding of WIIFM and WIIFU. The challenge is that sometimes the right move forward is not a positive WIIFM. The change is beneficial to the broader us but sub-optimizes the individual me. A poorly articulated WIIFM can cause active change resistance.

Group Barriers

In groups, individual people barriers influence how each person reacts within the group, and in addition, the group may develop similar barriers.

Stuck in first gear

There are two sides to this coin: enthusiasm without direction, and lack of traction. “We get excited and want to charge forward, yet do not really know how to get there or even where there is. We do not know where to start, how to connect to what we are doing today.” The dream syndrome, always centered on what if or when this happens, is an example of enthusiasm without direction. The shift point is too far forward, with no roadmap connecting today and tomorrow’s work.

Misdirected efforts

Misdirected efforts are those activities that move away from the foundational behaviors of successful transformation: move forward, make decisions, share the wins, keep changing. Misdirection is not always intentional, nor malicious, but it is important to watch for it, and re-direct. One example is people trying too hard and not seeing results; their efforts are not connected to broader success goals. Too much time and energy spent on today’s work that is not beneficial to tomorrow’s work slows down forward progress.


Many times, people are waiting for something to happen, for a change, while secretly hoping they do not have to change. They are waiting, just waiting. Successful transformation is dependent on leaders being in front of the changes, then leading others. Analysis paralysis is one example of this: requiring more and deeper analyses of data in hopes of getting to a perfect answer. When facing a change a dozen questions might be asked with the hope that one answer will justify not pushing through the change.

Focusing on regrets

Woulda – coulda – shoulda; regrets waste time. What has happened is past. Yes, it is useful to understand how decisions might change moving forward based on the past. It is not useful to continually rehash the past, hoping the conclusion changes. Learn the lesson and move forward. Looking backward stalls forward momentum.

Living only in the present

Whew, I finished that change, now I can get on with my work! This implies change was a nuisance and interfering with the way person works today. Those responsible for the integrity of current state may feel disciplined transformation (organization-wide, forward change) is the burr under the saddle, an irritant. ‘We’re not broken’ statements indicate resistance. iving in the present behaviors include constant bickering about what to change, mandating absolute proof before moving forward, and not using one’s leader intuition.

Misaligned incentives

Most of us work for money and assess our value monetarily. We allocate our time to get the most value. If we are not incented to make transformation a priority, we will not. Our value does not increase, and often decreases, if we are pushing forward while our peers are successfully staying steady with today’s work.

Personas that Create Barriers

A persona is an aspect of someone's character that is presented to or perceived by others. Some personas, whether by individuals or groups, can create barriers.


“We do not want to | need to | have to listen to you.” These words are typically not spoken; they are expressed nonverbally. Closed arms, not paying attention and multi-tasking are all defensive positions that indicate non-participation. The converse of this position is when those who agree publicly with the decision move in a different direction privately. They do not talk poorly about the decision, but actions speak louder than words. They use the secret meeting after the meeting to discuss a different way. I have seen this occur when the decision cannot be visibly connected to what changes in today’s work, when one’s personal role is sub-optimized with the decision, when people are unwilling or unable to let go.


Blockers openly reject the decision and the change, unlike non-supporters. Blockers often focus on either my way or your way instead of our way. They are closed to feedback. They may publicly criticize the decision made using the defined rights and rules. They speak more than hear. There is also the challenge of hearing, but not listening. This occurs when the listener has a different perspective on the conversation; the listener is filtering the words through a different internal frame and resistant to the message by the speaker.

Stallers and time wasters

Leadership time not available often equates to avoidance of accountability. “If I, the leader, am not there, a decision cannot be made. My voice has to be heard.” Stalling is a self-serving state.

By expecting others to be ready and waiting when you finally are; when you are late and everyone is waiting, a very clear message is sent: my time is more important than your time.

Fixing on a solution without a clear vetting of the problem leads to closed ears. If someone simply walks into the meeting and declares what the others need, that person may fail at reaching the alignment to move forward on the solution. It becomes yet another disagreement within a group. The problem must be addressed collectively.

Impact of individual behaviors on the group

Letting go of individual needs to put the group’s forward needs first is challenging. It can only be done if you have, at a minimum, some understanding of what your future is. One’s personal frame impacts the ability to support others. “It is important to me, whether it is important to you or not.” Whether these words are spoken or not, people often stop listening when the topic is not important to self. It takes discipline to listen to what is important to others from their perspective, and then to include all individual concerns into the organization’s shared future.

Individual behaviors that tend to derail shared forward movement as a group include focusing only on personal needs, being too far ahead of the group and going it alone.

Signs Barriers are Present

There are visible signs barriers to success are present in your transformation efforts:

  • Execution is losing momentum, pending decisions on structure and process

  • Work is on hold, awaiting key decisions on how the organization defines and manages sustainable change

  • There is confusion surrounding accountability for the future view; organization is moving forward in multiple directions.

  • Individuals want to be engaged and add value, but do not believe they are personally positioned for success.

Address the signs and the underlying barriers, and transformation continues. Ignore, and the journey stalls.

Mitigating the barriers

In successful transformations, a clear vision and direction resonate, communications are open and transparent, and skills and staffing adjust as needed. Barriers to achievement are anticipated and addressed by the leaders. Individual and team goals are in alignment within the loops of change.

New skills can be taught, new technologies implemented, and new processes developed, but the change will still fail if leadership does not provide reinforcement for desired new behaviors and consequences for old behaviors.

The personal challenge of transformation is this: if it is just one more thing for individuals to deal with, the changes will fall by the wayside. The transformation work must be:

  • Important: moving to tomorrow is as important as today’s work

  • Linked to people’s wallet: people put effort where rewarded

  • Aligned to other changes across organization: transformation is not a stand-alone activity

What barriers have been broken in your organization to enable ongoing, constant change? What barriers remain? How do you as a leader break known barriers?

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