This article is more a summary than a true handbook of business transformation which would be quite a large volume – but it will give you ideas about where to look and what to do.

1.   What is Business Transformation?

Forget ordinary business change – the sort of thing that happens all the time. Transformation is defined as a complete change in the appearance or character of something or someone, especially so that that thing or person is improved. In this context think business transformation.

Note the emphasis is on complete change. In turn this begs the question as to why one should be embarking on such a shift in operation or focus.

2.   Where to Start?

The simple answer is “at the very beginning” – although experience tells us that few people or organisations actually do just that. Instead they leap into things some way down an assumed track. That’s the biggest mistake in the book – so don’t do it.

Instead the only way to get things right is to build on a solid foundation of understanding. Why is the transformation required in the first place? To what is it a response? What is causing all of that?

These questions are fundamental and bringing the root cause analysis right to the fore is essential.

3.   Get the People Right

Even before starting the analysis it is critical that a core team is assembled that can own and drive the process that is to follow.

These people need to have a mix of styles and competencies. Selecting those who will only agree to direction from above, rather than challenging the assumptions, is a recipe for problems. This also means that the leadership needs to recognise this as a requirement and act accordingly – giving authority and support to the team as it builds the initial elements of the transformation programme. Top-down direction is definitely to be avoided, instead the beginnings consist of exploration and query to develop a rich and accurate picture of what the challenges are.

There are tools and techniques described elsewhere [click here] that can help you out with this. Follow them and make sure the team is diverse and empowered.

4.   Communicate Throughout

One common failing is that of communication. The ideas that reside in the boss’s head need to be translated and transmitted across the organisation. Besides, there are a myriad of other things that will need to be communicated and understood. This is transformation and by definition is taking people into new territory. If you want fear and revolt – keep things a secret. On the other hand talking and communicating in a variety of ways and channels will help to keep people on-side.

We’re mainly thinking about internal communications – at least to begin with. It is going to depend on what precisely you are doing as to whether external communications are necessary. Launching a new business line is going to need both. Rebuilding the internal processes may not.

5.   Use Problem Analysis Tools & Techniques

Performing rigorous analysis of the root causes and working out precisely what the problem(s) is/(are) should be the first priority. Forget the promises of digital transformation or implementation of software or processes that hold out a solution. These may be the right solution but are they appropriate? You will only know if you have done the groundwork in the first instance.

A variety of techniques should be employed – each will give a different insight and sometimes these will be conflicting. So merely relying on a quick set of questions can give the wrong view. First understand the rationale for the ones you use – this shouldn’t be a blind exercise. There are plenty of such techniques laid out in 101 Executive Uses for a Square Camel, so go and get hold of a copy and do some homework.

6.   Refining the Underlying Problem

There is always a desire to press ahead with a programme of change. People feel an urgency to be getting on with doing, rather than asking questions. It’s a natural human trait but one that should be resisted strongly.

There’s subtlety that needs to be understood if you are to design a great transformation. So spending time on tuning the understanding of the underlying problems and causes is absolutely critical. In fact this is the one step that is most likely to save time in the long-run. The old saying that time spent in preparation and planning is seldom wasted is very true.

As an aside there are ample examples in public life of things being done based on false premises. People are rightly critical of the waste of time and resources that ensue. So don’t make the same mistakes with your business.

7.   Creative Solution Design

Once you do have a really good problem statement (or group of interconnected problems) that has been refined then you are good to go with the next stage.

Again you should resist the temptation to rush ahead with a preferred solution – irrespective of where that has come from. Instead spend time looking at creative ways to design and deliver a solution.

Being able to change gear into a creative mode isn’t difficult but it does require structure and framework. So get the team’s collective head around a suite of tools and techniques that they can switch on and use at will. If you really want to leverage their capabilities get some of them to complete the online course Introduction to Creativity in Business. Around 8 hours of training that will deliver in spades when it comes to doing the solution design.

Good practitioners of creativity use a lot of metaphor in working out what might be done. This shouldn’t be constrained by limitations until a very rich tapestry of options has been described. Then, and only then, should these be appraised for use and you find ways of returning from metaphor to actionable things.

This splitting of the design phase into a divergence, followed by appraisal, will allow a wealth of ideas to surface – some of which, while appearing impossible at first sight, are likely to contribute to further development of what is actually going to be done. The chance concatenation of different thoughts and proposals often throws up insights and opportunities. You shouldn’t underestimate the value of all of this.

If you don’t believe me then think of the humble Post-It note from 3M. An attempt to make a very strong glue actually resulted in the removable adhesive that we all use. Someone saw the initial failure and put it together with some paper to attach personal notes to a screen when they couldn’t use thumb-tacks. Others saw them and wanted their own – and so the Post-It went viral. Nobody had set out to design it but look at the value created.

8.   Appraisal Techniques

What constraints are you operating under?

Whether these are resource limitations, time or other factors, get them out onto the table and use them to benchmark the ideas you have in front of you.

Don’t sacrifice quality at the first hurdle just to overcome time or budget constraints. Instead focus on designing the best possible transformation. If you have to run a second pass at that in terms of fitting it into a constrained box – then treat that as a separate but essential problem to be solved. It’s a common failing that affects many transformations that quality is the first casualty in favour of a simplistic view of the resource budget. Then people wonder why they don’t get the results they envisaged…

9.   Planning in Phases

Start with an overall outline plan that works from a very well-defined future state and works back to the present. This flushes out the key dependencies and will help you avoid blind alleys along the way forward. This outline plan becomes the blueprint to inform everything else. For one thing it will give an idea of the scale and complexity that is to come.

As your ideas for solution start to crystallize it will likely become apparent that you can’t do everything in one go. Instead a logical phasing should be worked out, using the following series of steps.

  • Plan the first stage or phase in great detail, based on the overall outline plan for the whole.
  • As part of the first phase, there should be activity to plan the ensuing phase in great detail and also to improve the understanding of the remainder.
  • Rinse and repeat (as they say).

It is also essential to control the investment in each phase by formalising the approvals process via a series of stage gates. Budget is only released for a phase on precondition that all the required plans and resources are in place to proceed.

10. Estimate Properly

As part of the planning you will also need to estimate. Resources. Timings. Impacts. And so on. I recommend a method known as Monte Carlo Estimating – which is remarkably accurate if you devote some serious effort to doing it across the board.

That will help you understand what is going to happen and when. What the minimum and maximum values are (whether that’s timings or costs or something else) and help you to work out when recognition events are going to occur. These will help you predict whether you are on track without having to wait for the end of a phase.

Think of them like the interim things you will see. For example imagine you are planning a holiday – the confirmation of flight booking or hotel reservation give you confidence that you are going to get where you want when you want. They don’t fly you to your destination but knowing that they are completed shows you are on track. Things can still change but at least that can be controlled.

11. Project Management Focused on Dependencies

I can’t emphasise this strongly enough – unless you manage the dependencies everything else will fall apart. Project managers (from whatever background) have a tendency to operate in their own silos. They fail to communicate with those that are supplying them with things they need and also with those to whom they are handing off.

This is one very good reason to have your overall plan visible at all times. Let people describe how what they are doing fits into the whole and explain what they need and when they need it in ways that are also visible to the other teams. Over time you get a collegiate approach to the whole and the silos will disappear. What ensues is a much more fluent delivery with fewer surprises or setbacks.

Nobody ever made a business transformation work by haphazard approaches. The rigours of project management are key to getting things done. They may be at the hard end of management approaches and that may not sit easily in some cultures – but a good deal of explaining what you are doing and why will keep people on-side.

How Do You Turn All This Into Reality?

That’s where we can help. Get in touch and start the conversation. We’ll help you design a template for going forward as part of a free consultation. We look forward to helping you transform in ways that take account of where you are as well as what you do. If you’d like more information, then you can also follow this link.

Rob Wherrett can be contacted at

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