Organization Transformation Overkill? Let’s Define What We Mean

  |  September 21, 2016

Ever been a part of an organizational transformation effort that just seemed like a long walk uphill in the rain?  Too many organizations are undertaking more and more organization transformation efforts that are supposed to significantly change the organization’s ability to compete and deliver value.  Yet, in reality, many of these efforts lead to missed deadlines, cost overruns, unclear or unmeasured results, and disengaged team members.

We think that an organization transformation is a great way to drive significant organizational change, but when it is poorly defined or managed, it can lead to suboptimal results. Before businesses spend valuable time and money investing in organizational transformation efforts, perhaps they should consider some of the fundamental problems in how “transformation” is defined.

One of the challenges in defining what we mean by transformation stems from the many ways we use the term. In our current usage, transformations are often ambiguous and may entail a single effort or even a bundle of efforts that can and often do last indefinitely. Rather than loosely define transformations and throw the word around haphazardly, perhaps we simply need more specificity. Here are a few keys to successfully defining and positioning an organization transformation:

Definite Start and End. Much like how project management defines projects as work efforts that have a discreet beginning and end, we think that a transformation should follow a similar formula. Regardless of size and scope, leaders need to think about and frame organization transformation efforts in terms of a significant period of change that has a clear start and a declared end. Of course, not all transformation efforts go as planned or achieve the results hoped for, but there should still be a point when, despite course corrections, the organization can declare, “This is it.”

What activities mark the official beginning of a transformation? What should the organization look like by the end? How will we get there? What does success look like?  How will we measure the outcomes of our efforts?  While the answers to these questions should be different for each organization, the milestones and particularly the end state of a transformation should be well thought out, planned, and fulfill a set of worthwhile goals that the entire organization can get behind and support. Don’t be like one organization we worked with that was on their eighth year of a supposed transformation called “HR Transformation 3.0.” By the time the organization arrived at HR Transformation efforts 3.0, efforts 1.0 and 2.0 had already worn out, fatigued, and disenfranchised the HR corps.

Transformations Should Drive Deep Change. A few years ago, we worked with an HR department that wanted to undergo an organizational “transformation.” The main thrust included a new HR system. When we pushed them on how other departments would need to change how they worked as a result of the transformation, we discovered that the “transformation” was really an update to their internal operating IT systems, and that managers and employees outside of HR wouldn’t feel a significant difference in their work or interactions with the HR function.

Let’s not overuse the “transformation” term because of the connotations that the term carries.  A transformation effort should fundamentally change how the organization, its work, its systems, its structure, and its talent work and align.  Often, a transformation effort will touch or impact multiple areas of an organization. A transformation effort, by definition, should drive deep change in how people think, behave, and perform.

Bundle Intelligently. Sometimes, organizations will take large change efforts from several parts of the organization and bundle them together to drive a larger transformation effort. Bundling makes sense when the different change efforts connect and when the organization can leverage the same messaging, communications, and change efforts to help members of the organization understand, support, and change in step with the broader, bundled transformation efforts.  However, when the bundling of different change efforts into a single larger transformation effort feels forced or is done to simplify governance and reporting, the transformation loses some of the cohesiveness in intent that can rally support and align behaviors.  Such transformation efforts that are just an amalgamation of disparate change efforts can make it difficult to declare the transformation over and complete because some aspects of the transformation will be occurring on different timelines and have vastly different business impacts and outcomes.

If employees and stakeholders are constantly told that the organization is undergoing a transformation without noticeable and discernible endings or marketplace benefits, they can begin to develop feelings of apathy, become disengaged, and question the credibility of organization leaders. Collections of unrelated change efforts that, under scrutiny, don’t motivate action, deliver noticeable market-place value, and lead to distinct points of closure in the organization change journey should not be bundled.

Measure Accomplishment. When Is the End the True End? Determining how to assess the impact of a transformation effort can be difficult. The work of the transformation can end at one point in time, but the long-term results of the transformation may not be visible or measurable for some time after that. We recommend that leaders consider two ending points of a transformation effort: one, the point at which the major work and milestones of the effort are completed and fully implemented; and two, the point at which we can measure or assess the results of the transformation.

It may be difficult to explain how a transformation can have two ending points.  Arguably, the transformation isn’t truly complete until the impacts of the effort can be measured (to learn more about how to measure a transformation, click here).  However, we believe that finding a way to do so will help organizations bring transformation efforts to an end—both from the perspective of the work being done and the results being achieved.

While organization transformations are a way of life, let’s help our organization avoid the overuse of the transformation term to avoid wearing down our organization members with a never-ending stream of transformation efforts that don’t lead to real or lasting changes, don’t seem connected or related, or aren’t measured.  One of the best parts of my career has been when I was part of a well-defined, organization transformation effort that avoided the pitfalls outlined here.  As executives, let’s ensure that the big plans and major transformation efforts we envision are not messy, ill-conceived, never-ending death marches, but instead efforts that lead to meaningful organizational change and ultimately marketplace success.



    Name Ken Brophy

    Great summary Reed. Successful people – whether athletes, business people, adventurers, etc. – always start with the end in mind, visualise the goal and when they hit that point they then go again. Endless iterations, moved goal posts, multi year amorphous change goals can have the opposite effect.

    Joan Jarrett

    Neverending transformation wears out all layers of the organization. Giving it a defined beginning and sensible ending framework makes it more manageable across the board. There still is likely to be work and change associated with further implementation, but it can then be incorporated into the normal process of managing the business (continuous improvement).