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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.