In my more than 30 years of leading strategy and change as a CEO, big-four bank CIO and a blue-chip management consultant, I’ve never heard someone claim that leading transformation is easy.
Transformation has always been hard and, according to McKinsey, more than 70–80 percent of them fail. Clearly there’s a gap between developing strategy and successfully implementing change.
What makes this success rate even more worrying is that the drivers of transformation are accelerating. AI, climate change, geopolitical pressures and general technology trends like cloud computing and cybersecurity, plus a huge variety of industry-centric regulation and competitive pressures, are going to challenge the business model of many of our organizations.
Clearly there’s a gap between developing strategy and successfully implementing change.
As a busy executive, how do you find time for an ongoing and comprehensive scan of your industry and potential emerging threats? After all, you’re already working overtime to deliver your scorecard and budget, managing the inevitable personnel issues, grappling with new regulations, responding to director requests (even when the answer is already in the board papers) and juggling revenue pressure with simultaneous inflationary costs, all while trying to get your staff to come back into the office.
And then when it comes to strategy, you’re given a document full of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats analyses, colored graphs and clear descriptions of what your company will do. It’s always pretty ‘safe’ because after all, the strategy process is typically quarantined to a couple of your executive colleagues – who generally self-reference as experts in the industry – and the result reflects this knowledge and comfortable experience.
So you throw your personal support behind the strategy, as documented, and you’re off and running to transform your business.
With the strategy set, objectives are documented, people are recruited, resources are secured and the transformation program commences.
A transformation might fail for a million different reasons, including poor scope clarity, uncommitted leadership, insufficient resources, factional resistance, an inability to deliver, overly complex requirements or the unanticipated complexity of the legacy technology environment.
When you consider the composition of many transformation governance committees, it’s almost inevitable these early warnings signs are missed.
Regardless of the reason, there are often early warning signs that are missed, the resultant issues fail to be fixed at ‘point easy’, and they grow in complexity and cost to solve as time marches on.
When you consider the composition of many transformation governance committees, it’s almost inevitable these early warnings signs are missed, because the committees are typically staffed entirely with company insiders with insufficient diversity, and it’s a part-time accountability for most.
In response to these inherent challenges, the most desirable character to have in your transformation governance committee is:
The ‘Unicorn’ – That rare executive who is highly familiar with leading transformation and all its detailed pitfalls. They always read the materials thoroughly well ahead of the session and are totally prepared for every meeting. They’re ready, motivated and capable of calling out issues in a constructive and respectful way, and are confident in all interactions with their colleague who is sponsoring the transformation.
An advisory board comprised entirely of ‘unicorns’ is likely to be amazingly successful, and sadly, just as amazingly rare. Instead, some of the following characters likely to be involved in any corporate transformation are:
The ‘Absent’ – Didn’t actually make the meeting because they were simply too busy. They knew this in advance, so rather than read the papers, they instead sent one of their team as their delegate. This delegate may well sit at the top table hoping they’re not called on for their opinion in case it contradicts what their boss said last time. So they say nothing.
The ‘Dog Ate My Homework’ – Actually attended the meeting, but unfortunately, they didn’t get a chance to read the papers. They therefore spent the entire meeting surreptitiously scanning the documents while keeping one ear open in case they’re called upon to provide their opinion.
The ‘Rookie’ – Is conscientious, read the papers fully in advance, but being unfamiliar with leading transformation, didn’t really know what to look for. Despite their best intentions, they fail to notice any red flags or threats to the program, and even if they do, they’re certainly not prepared to raise them.
The ‘Concerned’ – Read the papers and found a couple of issues that worried them. They wrote comprehensive notes and several large question marks in the margin of the papers, but when it came time to raise them, unfortunately they didn’t. Or couldn’t. Or wouldn’t. And so they let the program proceed without addressing the legitimate issues that should’ve been called out.
The ‘Traditionalist’ – That executive who has been in the industry (or company) for decades and is so completely familiar with all its aspects that the views, opinions and assumptions they make are exactly the same as those of their colleague across the table with a similar background and experience.
As a result, problems are not identified, rationales and assumptions remain unchallenged and issues that could be fixed at point easy are carried forward to grow and become even more challenging to fix in the future.
To land successful transformation, it’s important to form a governance board with the right combination of mindset (curious, collaborative, ambitious and focused) and mechanics (experience in process and technology implementation).
Choose people who are ambitious for the company, its future and the breadth and depth of the transformation. Assign people who are prepared to do the necessary work and contribute to the program.
Seek diversity in terms of gender, but also in experience and frame of reference. Choose those who can and will shake up the established norms of both the company and the industry. Get people who will thrive in the constructive collision and competition of ideas and visions.
Leading transformation is already hard, so ensuring you have a truly diverse set of skills, temperaments and experiences within your governance committee will help you be more successful.
If these people aren’t available internally (best option) then consider drawing on external specialists (next best option) to inject new skills to constructively challenge the status quo and accelerate momentum. Welcome the outsider who can provide a view that’s independent of the senior executives already within the room and who will comment without fear or favor.
In summary, leading transformation is already hard, so ensuring you have a truly diverse set of skills, temperaments and experiences within your governance committee will help you be more successful.
Ensure all involved are willing to dedicate sufficient time to the program and have the ambition and courage to challenge the outcomes desired, assumptions made and progress achieved.
Contributor Collective Member
Adam Bennett is the Principal of Great Change Consulting and works with CEOs and executives on the delivery of large-scale transformation. As a former big-four bank CIO, CEO and blue-chip management consultant, he has more than 30 years of experience working at the intersection of digital disruption and technological change. He’s the author of ‘Great Change – The Way to Get Big Strategy Done’, published by Wiley, and an Adjunct Professor (industry) at the University of Technology, Sydney. Adam was the first post-privatization CEO for the New South Wales Land Registry Services and led the transformation of the former government department into a successful and highly profitable private sector company. Learn more at https://greatchangeconsulting.com.au/