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Performance Insight: Four critical elements for delivering successful transformation

Transformation is always hard to do, but with the proper foundations in place, organisations can drastically improve their odds of being successful.

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Transformation is everywhere – every company is going through one, or more, often simultaneously. The drivers for these changes are only accelerating. As technology becomes increasingly ubiquitous and capital gets cheaper, we believe that only companies that can transform better than the competition will thrive tomorrow. Being successful in transformation means both improving performance and equipping the organisation to embed improvements over time to unlock sustainable value.

It has been said that ‘the pace of change has never been this fast, yet it will never be this slow again’, so how do you increase the odds of successful transformation? You must start by asking: ‘how do we establish the right foundations for success?’. This article shares several practices that we have found to be most impactful and that form the basis of our enduring client partnerships.

“Most company initiatives – installing new technology, downsizing, restructuring, or trying to change corporate culture – have had low success rates. The brutal fact is that about 70% of all change initiatives fail”

Nitin Nohria & Michael Beer, HBR: Cracking the Code of Change

An effective approach to transformation is strongly influenced by the context and the prevailing culture of the organisation. The HOW of transformation is a critical factor for success. The WHAT is, of course, especially important, but it will differ every time.

The breadth of complex programmes that we have supported over the last decade has allowed us to develop, evaluate and refine the Muuto approach, demonstrating the effectiveness of a handful of pragmatic essentials. We consistently observe the following four elements across successful transformations.

1. Clear and discrete accountabilities, at the right level

The scenario is likely familiar. From only a handful of conversations with those involved in large transformations, the feedback is often, “we aren’t clear about who is in charge”, “who gets to decide”, “we have good conversations, but the work isn’t getting done”.

This is common, especially in the initial stages of a transformation. It is natural in the forming stage of any new team but often persists long after it ought to, burning energy as frustrated teams muddle through. Often individuals either do not want to step up to take on risky accountabilities, where perceived failure might be career-limiting or where individuals do not want to be seen to be making a land-grab in more conciliatory cultures. This is further complicated by interconnections within a matrix – P&L owners, functions, business units, markets and often, other transformation programmes. The ultimate impact is the underperformance of the transformation. This also prolongs the overall timeline (to deliver target outcomes), as decisions are deferred or recycled. Potentially this ends in programme failure and regression to the status quo. The original enthusiasm wanes and the transformation fades away.

If you only have capacity to change one thing for success, then focus on this. Setting accountabilities appropriately unlocks value and unblocks bottlenecks.

Cover the bases with the Big Five

For any transformation – regardless of scope, scale, or duration – there are key accountabilities that need to be owned. Our view is that ‘accountabilities’ are best described as ‘jobs to be done’. This is not a complete set of activities within a job description, but the key activity areas that will have an oversize impact on the desired outcome. How these activity areas are grouped (into jobs) is less important and will vary depending on resource available and the scale of the transformation, but each job must be defined with mutually-exclusive and collectively-exhaustive scope across the programme. Each job also needs a single appointed ‘integrator’ to drive transformation actions. We use the following shorthand titles for each of these Big Five jobs to be done:

  1. Owner: the executive with the ultimate accountability for the success (or failure) of the transformation and its impacts on the organisation. They have explicit decision-making on high-value or high-risk choices, supported by a group of senior leaders.

  2. Director: a day-to-day leader of the transformation programme with delegated authority on behalf of the Owner and the organisation’s leadership. They focus on the ‘unblocking’ needed to accelerate delivery.

  3. Super Integrator: a composer and conductor for the transformation: delivery approach, infrastructure, and progress. Often referred to as a programme or transformation manager they drive the cadence of programme mobilisation, decisions, and delivery. They have an ability to zoom in and out from detail to big picture, and back again, on a frequent basis.

  4. ExpertS: deliberately the plural and not one expert; these are subject matter experts who have delivery ownership for a specific domain or area of expertise e.g., business process, technology, strategy, regulatory, technical etc. Especially in very large or digitally-led programmes there are often many Experts involved, each operating as ‘integrators’ for their respective scope.

  5. People Integrator: there is always a human component to any transformation, be this pure HR policy and process, staff engagement or managing change for new ways of working. Where things are often subdivided into many functional specialisations, this role is a critical integration point for the overlapping and complementary people components.

There will be many more resources executing delivery within programme workstreams in support of these five, but a transformation set-up with these groupings of accountabilities helps to rationalise to a few clear points of contact and a ‘single hand to shake’ for programme planning and performance.

Strong core, flexible application

This is not a one-size-fits-all approach, but the fundamentals are robust and widely applicable for most major transformations. It is practical to tailor these roles according to the context of a transformation. Applied thoughtfully, the Big Five will accommodate any delivery methodology and are content agnostic, whether that be moving data and systems to the cloud, integrating an acquired company, or restructuring. We complement this by being equally clear on ‘deployment accountabilities’. These are held by individuals who function as the receivers and owners of the transformation content, driving the deployment of this content within their area of the organisation. They work in close partnership with the Big Five.

2. Appoint superstars, great teams don’t happen by accident

You need to have the best players on the pitch. It is not adequate to fill these critical roles with people who are simply available or for whom it is a development opportunity. It is important that individuals have proven performance for the jobs to be done, in the tailored roles that you define. For example, a business unit’s existing HR Business Partner is not automatically the right profile to lead the complex communications and employee relations components of a transformation.

Substantial change roles can rarely be done ‘side of desk’, in addition to a day job. It takes a significant investment of time and, in the early stages especially, much more than any 9-5 job. Individuals need to be selected, engaged (internals) or recruited (externals), and appointed. These appointments need to be transparent to the transformation team and key stakeholders, so everyone knows who is accountable for what.

3. Harness the ‘voice of the customer’, structurally

In this instance take ‘customer’ to mean the internal customers of the change (although this can also apply for external customers). The voice of the customer (VoC) is the ‘Plus One’ to complement the Big Five. Where we see the biggest benefit of this approach, clients take the broadest interpretation and cross-section of impacted stakeholder (customer) groups. It is important to identify parties with the major vested interests – those who are directly impacted or, those who have the greatest ability to influence the success (or failure) of the transformation.

We work with our clients to establish a VoC forum with a clear mandate. The explicit request of this group is to represent the views of their constituents, to challenge constructively and to bring in their professional experience to help guide the transformation. It should be positioned at a similar status or level as the transformation steering group which indicates the expected seniority of the participants.

VoC engagement is fundamentally different from the traditional concept of Stakeholder Mapping where long lists are eagerly developed but rarely actively managed. Canvasing direct VoC leads to active engagement and an opportunity to hear and understand different perspectives. Embracing this kind of participation helps sharpen communication and, as a natural by-product, cultivates a group of well-informed senior influencers who can make a strong positive impact, acting as local change sponsors and agents.

“If there is any one ‘secret’ to an enduring great company, it is the ability to manage continuity and change—a discipline that must be consciously practiced”

Jim Collins, Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies

4. Separate the process from the content, and positioning

An area where we often see delivery challenges in transformations is with disjointed or absent elements of the HOW of delivery – the process by which things will be planned, executed, and monitored. Often this is muddled with the WHAT – the content of the transformation itself – and this all needs to be grounded in the WHY – how does this transformation help to deliver on the strategic choices that have been made around where to play and how to win.

Addressing the HOW

Selecting, and sticking to, a delivery method provides greater clarity on what is expected and by when. This allows teams to focus on developing content rather than continual negotiations on schedule and decision points. It also helps to mitigate the disruption of arbitrary top-down deadlines, in the absence on a committed schedule. A plan for something as complex as a transformation will never be frozen, nor can it be perfect. What is important is a rational but ambitious schedule, clear progress checkpoints, and clarity on the major dependences. Often ‘good enough is good enough’ when it comes to outlining and communicating a longer-term roadmap for change.

Be realistic about what it takes

Back to earlier points on clarity of accountabilities and ensuring A-players are in the team; individuals cannot be wholly effective if they are overloaded with competing priorities. A common request of our team is to supply experts to help mobilise a transformation, “and now you are here can you also help on a workstream X?”, or vice versa. It is important to delineate between coordinating the work and doing the work and not to under-resource, especially in peak periods. When early visible progress is vital – to develop confidence and momentum – adequate capacity is the other side of the equation.

Start from where you are

It is a common trend that when an organisation sets out on a complex multi-year transformation there is an explicit ambition to abandon the status quo of ‘how things get done around here’ and to adopt a fundamentally new way of working. From our experience, an organisation can significantly improve its chances of transformation success by leveraging existing processes and incrementally improving and adapting them, not by starting with a blank sheet of paper. Even when the transformation content will be a revolution the roll-out into the organisation is more likely to be successful if it is an evolution. Establishing and institutionalising a new project methodology across an organisation is likely a transformation in its own right.

In conclusion

In this performance insight article, we have outlined some proven practices that can have a disproportionate impact on the likelihood of transformation success. We have focussed on how to set-up and deliver a transformation, rather than a narrower focus on detailed delivery components. In doing this we have assumed that a clear and compelling value case for a transformation has already been articulated. In practice, assuming that the WHY is already in place is risky. The choice to switch on the complex and disruptive effort of a transformation programme should be based on a suitably compelling value case that has been thoroughly challenged from different perspectives and is ‘owned’ by the leaders of the organisation. Done holistically and structurally, these different elements come together to help generate leadership alignment and organisational buy-in. These are critical factors to sustain and embed the desired transformational changes. Lack of clarity on the WHY is likely the biggest challenge to successfully mobilising a transformation for success, regardless of the efficacy of the HOW.


About the Authors

Chris Tomlinson is Muuto Consulting’s Managing Director. He specialises in the design and execution of complex global transformation programmes. Prateek Sinha is Muuto’s Head of Transformation Strategy. He works with C-suite leaders and teams as they tackle the challenges of profound business change.

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