I’ve been part of many organizational transformations over 30 years of management consulting.  Most were with IT organizations, many were with HR organizations and some were transformations to global shared services.

I used to be excited by the idea of an organizational transformation.  When a client or prospective client used the word “transformation” I would salivate!  “Them’s fighting words!”

But nowadays, I generally shy away from the “t” word. Here’s why.

The Trouble With Transformation

There are several reasons why I don’t like the word “transformation”:

  • For most of the organization, it can feel demeaning, effectively sending the message, “You aren’t any good and you have to transform!”  That can be a bitter pill to swallow (and is almost always untrue – at least in part.)  Not the best way to enroll people in change!
  • From the perspective of 2012, most people have been part of at least one organizational “transformation,” – it was painful and ultimately failed to deliver on its promises.  Announcing yet another transformation typically elicits the response, “Here we go again!” Organizational transformations tend to promise too much and deliver too little.
  • Transformation implies a journey from current state to a future state by going through some kind of radical (transformational?) change.  Increasingly, organizations that are healthy, effective and growing in capability are in a state of constant change and adaption.  The current state → transformation → future state model no longer applies, so why delude ourselves and confuse everybody about having a transformation?
  • Transformations are highly disruptive. They are disruptive because they assume that someone (or group) knows what the future state will look like – “all we have to do is to transform into that future state from our current state!”

To this last point, the reality is that organizational behavior is way too complex for anyone to “know” what the future state will look like.  Perhaps, way back when, in the days of hierarchical, authoritarian organizations in the early industrial revolution, a determinist approach to operating model design was feasible – especially if you thought you were transforming into a future state that would then be ‘frozen.’  We may well know the characteristics we would like to see in the future state, and the kinds of behaviors we’d like to experience, but exactly how we will get there, and what our Operating Model (processes, roles, rules of engagement, governance, services, metrics, etc.) will look like is far less certain.

I think organizational and operating model design nowadays is more about emergence – point people in the right direction, then get out of their way!  To that end, we need to define that direction:

  1. Outcomes we’d like to see
  2. Capabilities we need to achieve those outcomes
  3. Processes, roles, competencies (i.e., knowledge, skills and behaviors) we need for those capabilities
  4. Management and governance systems

Then we need to:

  1. Over-communicate items 1 through 4 above – engage people in really understanding, co-developing and creating organizational clarity.
  2. Empower them to do what is necessary, make sure they have the right tools and infrastructure and get out of their way.
  3. Enable them with a meaningful way to participate in shaping their future – we have found that a semantic wiki can be a great vehicle to achieve this (see this post and the earlier posts (here and here) in the series).

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

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