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“That is Why You Fail” – Yoda

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The problem with many transformation exercises, whether they be of digital, agile, or some other flavor, is that they don’t change the mindset. Expectations for radically better results abound, but the willingness to actually change both what is achieved and how these results are achieved is often lacking.

When I go into a transformation exercise, I often find myself repeating the same joke to make a point. It goes like this:

Riddle: “How many psychologists does it take to change a light bulb?”
Answer: “Only one, but it can take a long time and the light bulb has to really want to change.”

The point being is that you can’t expect the benefits of a transformation exercise unless you are willing to do the hard work to actually change. There is no silver bullet, but there are better methods and outcomes.

The other issue that I find with these types of exercises is that they don’t yield sustainable new ways of working- i.e: the transformation. When the transformation project is “done”, the consultant leaves, and the internal team is trying to figure out what to do with it all, ultimately they revert back to doing things according to familiar processes and patterns. The transformation didn’t stick. I can’t even begin to tell you how many companies I’ve found in this state, half-way between what was and what was supposed to be.

Two Root Causes and a Better Way

My hypothesis for this is that there are two root causes of transformation failure. One, that the goal of the transformation project was not the right one- it focused on what I call a point goal, a single objective met at a point in time. The second being that the approach used was based on installing processes and reorganizing structures (whether this is done top down or bottom up really doesn’t matter) instead of teaching the internal teams how to change their mindset and approach the work differently.

A better way to ensure a functional and sustainable transformation that yields results in both the short and long term is to define the objective of the transformation as a process goal, that is, a goal the defines not a singular accomplishment at a moment in time, but rather a goal that defines the journey toward a desired capability or business objective. Continuous learning is a great example of a process goal, because it’s not something you can check off and say “done”- it’s continuous, there is always room for being better and improving on the current state. Agile transformations are particularly prone to this error and the resultant failures; companies often fail to understand that agile is a way, not a place.

To be successful with a process goal such as continuous learning requires a change in mindset, which brings us to the second issue and a better way to go about it. Using the same type of “change management” that you’ve used in reorgs, pivots, whatever, won’t get you the transformation results you need. To abuse and paraphrase a quote from the first Star Wars movie:

“These are not the [changes] you are looking for.”

Instead, truly transformational outcomes demand a different approach, one that instills a culture of pursuit for the benefits of being transformed. This is a rather different way to lead as it is focused on enabling organizations, teams, and individuals to embrace, learn, and adopt rather than being sold, told, and cajoled. The fundamental approach to a successful transformation is to transform how you implement change. That may seem a bit meta, but think about it for a minute and you will realize the ground truth of it. An oft used quote from Marshall Goldsmith, “What got you here won’t get you there”, is squarely applicable here.

When you approach and plan your next transformation project, be it agile or digital, understand that it is also cultural. Make sure the goal is defined as a process goal and that you incorporate new ways of thinking and doing things in both your plan of attack and the expected results.

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