It’s Your First Time;
Understand the People Involved;
Analyse the Root Causes and Problems;
Design Creatively;
Plan Carefully;
Run the Execution

It’s Your First Time

There always has to be a first time, whether that is leading or participating in a business transformation. Yet surprisingly very few organisations coach their people on how to go about it. The result is often a combination of trial and error. So where should you start?

Ideally begin by understanding that this is going to be a complex interaction of people, process and technology. The proportions are going to vary quite a lot but the biggest constant will be the people factor. You may be surprised to know that many managers – particularly in smaller enterprises – rarely have had any training about the psychology that surrounds them in the workplace. The only place where this is common is in sales teams, about how to handle customers. Elsewhere there tends to be more reliance on doing what the boss says – although there are also plenty of great examples where a more collaborative environment exist.

Think hard for a moment and try and describe your own organisation through the eyes of the more junior members of the team. It would be good to check and find out if what you think is borne out by their own views. If that highlights a difference (it usually does) then work out what that is telling you about how you should view the people and their involvement in making major change happen.

You also need a sponsor at the head of the organisation who is going to be fully supportive of the effort. If you don’t have one but have come up with the initial ideas for what needs doing, then go and talk to the CEO and ask for their help or advice on how to fill this important role.

Understand The People Involved

You don’t have to go to great lengths conducting detailed psychometrics. For one thing that can be very expensive and also takes a lot of resources. Instead research ways to get insight into broad styles and their interactions. We help clients by giving them a whole toolkit to enable this to happen. It’s not difficult to do and the costs are minimal.

However the results of getting insights – and sharing them, can be very helpful indeed. Once people start to understand themselves better they also appreciate how contrasting styles can complement one another. So spend some time doing the groundwork and getting people to see each other in a different light.

There is plenty of literature on work teams and the combinations of types that make them function better. Much of it is quite easy to understand. However the big lesson to share is that the simple principle of mixing styles makes for better results. Teams formed of clones are pretty useless when it comes to managing any form of change.

It’s also important to bear the various styles in mind when thinking about external stakeholders even if they are actually organisations rather than individuals. Over the years I developed a modelling mechanism to find out what “other organisations” may be thinking or feeling and it can give insight without having to ask them a single question.

Most commentators on managing transformation start by talking about the strategy and the goals. It’s a big mistake because those need to be aligned to the people involved and therefore that’s where you should begin your investigations.

Analyse The Root Causes And Problems

Most articles or methods dealing with transformation omit to say that whatever is being considered it is ALWAYS in response to an underlying problem. Not a revision in corporate strategy or simply a change in market conditions. Where that problem is and what its roots are need to be properly understood. Otherwise even the best-intentioned transformation will go awry. Change management is actually a function of problem-solving. It is trying to induct different approaches or technologies that will deal with that problem. In a transformation there is the additional intention not just to repair or mend but to use the opportunity to do something that will alter the paradigm of the organisation. That could be entry into new markets. A digitisation of the business. Relocation of major premises to a site which offers greater flexibility of operations. The list goes on.

So, taking that into consideration, what does this mean as you learn the ropes in business transformation? The answer is to take great care in understanding those root causes. Naïve people may assume they know what needs fixing and set about the solution. It never works – and I truly do mean NEVER. In over 40 years I never once came across an organisation that had bothered to fully understand its root problems before embarking on major change and the results were always a mismatch between problem and solution. So as you learn the ropes don’t fall into that particular pit.

Design Creatively

Avoid the temptation to go for an obvious solution without first attempting to produce a wealth of alternatives. Why? Well because without this you never truly innovate and transformation is crying out for innovation. Otherwise it is simply building on what exists either in your own organisation or a competitor’s and that is hardly going to produce a breakthrough.

You may wonder what designing creatively actually entails, so let me put your mind at ease. This isn’t something that requires a particularly creative individual or team. On the contrary I recommend approaches that can be used by literally anyone. You should see this as part of the Creative Problem-Solving cycle (sometimes referred to as CPS). It is a 3-phase approach that began with the Analysis (above) and continues by generating Solution options and evaluating those. Finally the selected solution or suite of solutions for very complex problems are Executed. We’ll come to that a bit later.

For now concentrate on driving out as many possible solutions as possible. Remember also to do this in two stages. First produce ideas – don’t try and validate them, you simply want as many options as possible to investigate. Then, and only then, you should go through a validation process. That will take into account resource limitations, scale and anything else that is relevant to your context. By doing this phase in two stages you open up the possibility of really creative solutions getting into the frame. They are the most likely source of breakthrough in what you actually execute.

Allow the sponsor to finalise the choice of options maybe from a shortlist of alternatives that fit the criteria. You need them onside and it will help to obtain the required buy-in from the top down.

Plan Carefully

All this preparatory work and hardly anything is planned. That’s the way it should be.

Now is the time to plan the execution – which may be multi-stage. Start by laying out a broad plan of how things might look. Then use tools to plan for certainty. You want to be sure that what you are planning is designed to deliver rather than be a wish-list of possible outcomes!

The smart manager of a transformation also knows to make sure that the planning includes a rigorous governance mechanism. Whether that’s something like ADPM (Advanced Dynamic Programme Management) or something else doesn’t hugely matter. [ADPM was designed by the DSDM Consortium and the UK’s National Computing Centre on the back of a method I successfully introduced to a FTSE-100 client.] What does matter is that you keep it simple and appropriate to the scale of your organisation.

There are a variety of sources of training in various methods and being at least conversant with the basics is going to stand you in good stead. Personally I find that most of what is described boils down to common sense but that is only apparent after you have had a look at one or two in detail to understand how things fit together.

Run The Execution

This is generally a series of linked projects that together make up the transformation programme. Making sure that the components and their relationships are understood will help to keep things on track. If you don’t possess sufficient business project management expertise then this is where a good external hire can help keep things straight. Note that it is business project management and this shouldn’t be run by an IT project manager. That’s a mistake that has often been made and is one reason why technical projects often fail to embed with the user community.

Review What Has Happened

There is one very good reason for doing this. It will give you a host of lessons to be learned and that can only be a good thing. You also want to make sure that your transformation continues to advance and doesn’t stagnate. Presumably you had hoped for some competitive advantage from what was being done and not continuing to develop will allow others to catch up. However be careful not to fall into the trap of not going through the entire analysis and design phases again in the future.

What Next?

We’ve invested heavily in understanding how to plan and execute business transformations and specialise in coaching and mentoring others to do this successfully. We’ve also got an extensive toolkit to share as part of that coaching. So contact us to get the conversation started about how you can learn and get things right.

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Rob Wherrett can be contacted at

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