The Roller Coaster Reality of Complex Organizational Transformations By Maureen Metcalf

This blog is a companion to the interview with Mike Sayre and Dr. Dale Meyerrose on VoiceAmerica “Innovative Leaders Driving Thriving Organizations” on February 7, 2017, Focusing on the roller-coaster reality of complex change.
As we listen to leaders talk about their transformation success – it sounds as if they created a plan, executed on the plan and declared victory. In working with large complex change, this is rarely true. Things happen that derail the project, such as acquisitions, divestitures, and market changes. The test of a successful leader is how he or she responds to the changes that happen, pivots to revise the strategy for success, and implements the revised strategy.

The role of organizations is to deliver results aligned with their mission. In a complex and ever changing environment, organizations must change to keep pace.

Scott came into an organization that was in the process of making significant change. His job was to lead the portfolio of transformation initiatives and ensure the business continued to run effectively. This role meant that he needed a strong understanding of the current organizational operations, the direction of the change and the capacity to change.
Given the rate of change we are seeing across the business landscape, rarely do I see organizations that aren’t making multiple concurrent changes. I expect that this trend will continue well beyond my career. Organizations now need to adopt the ability to change as a core competency if they are to thrive long term.

Many leaders believe they are effective at change because they have led a few initiatives. As the bar increases, it is incumbent on you as a leader to continually hone this skill of leading organizational transformation, which means knowing how to both update yourself as a leader and transform your organization. For optimal effectiveness, both need to be done concurrently.

According to Dale, change falls along a continuum – and your approach needs to be adjusted accordingly. Here is the simple example of the continuum – you need to know which level of change you are putting in place:

1. Fill potholes
2. Repave the road
3. Build new road

As a leader of change, it is helpful to categorize each change along the continuum and understand project dependencies as well as people impact. Your employees are the most valuable asset you have in implementing change. If you don’t take concrete steps to attend to the rate of change and their ability to adapt, you risk failure. People are resilient. If you are doing the “right things”, they will be actively engaged in managing through the transformation. You need to build trust and be appropriately transparent during a difficult transformation.

The more extreme the transformation, the bigger the people impact. How you handle people issues governs the success of the change. Because you have a limited number of employees who are familiar with your organization, they will govern the rate of change. While you can augment them with consultant or contingent workers, your long-term ability to perform will depend on your internal staff being prepared at the end of the transformation to operate the business. By attending to their capacity and building their resilience, you can accelerate the pace of change.

A key factor that is often overlooked during transformation is organizational culture. Are your changes aligned with the culture? Implementing change that is inconsistent with your culture can undermine the change initiative and the culture. For many companies the culture is the “secret sauce” of their success. If this is true for you, the recipe should be protected, which means it needs to be included in the change portfolio as a key factor and, in many cases, it should be one of the projects to ensure it is being attended to across the range of changes.

We have talked about people and culture but we have not yet addressed the question of turn-over. In many cases, some of the team will not fit after the transformation is complete.
This could be because of the required skills and roles, or it could be because they don’t align with the culture. It is important to be aware of the expected attrition rate during a change and plan accordingly. People want to be treated fairly. When they see their colleagues treated with disrespect, you are at risk. That said, top performers want to be surrounded by top performers so they will expect their leaders to take action if team members are not meeting expectations. Action could be additional support or a different role. These decisions can be complicated because we are talking about employee’s livelihoods. Change leaders need to balance compassion for people with the requirements of the organization to implement the transformation.

By understanding the magnitude of change, planning the process, and taking into account the people and the culture, you will increase your probability of success. Every change runs into challenge, and with the support of your people, you will have the people involved who are committed to navigating the issues. If, on the other hand, you are not actively engaging your people at every step of the way, you risk failure.

To become a more innovative leader, please consider our online leader development program. For additional tools, we recommend taking leadership assessments, using the Innovative Leadership Fieldbook and Innovative Leaders Guide to Transforming Organizations, and adding coaching to our online innovative leadership program. We also offer several workshops to help you build these skills.

About the Author
Maureen Metcalf, CEO and Founder of Metcalf & Associates, is a renowned executive advisor, author, speaker, and coach whose 30 years of business experience provides high-impact, practical solutions that support her clients’ leadership development and organizational transformations. Maureen is recognized as an innovative, principled thought leader who combines intellectual rigor and discipline with an ability to translate theory into practice. Her operational skills are coupled with a strategic ability to analyze, develop, and implement successful strategies for profitability, growth, and sustainability.

Maureen has published several papers and articles and speaks regularly on innovative leadership, resilience, and organizational transformation. She is the author of the award-winning Innovative Leadership Workbook Series and the co-author of The Innovative Leadership Fieldbook, winner of an International Book Award for Best Business Reference Book. She is also a regular contributor to Forbes.com.

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