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The Spark that Lights the Flame (3)

How leaders imbue their organizations with an intrinsic and self-sustaining need for transformation

  • June 2018
Triggering the transformation

By this point, together with our client we have determined what degree of transformation is necessary in various dimensions and at different points within the company. A shared view among the management team of the level of transformation required (improvement, renewal or reinvention) and of the current state of the company at the start of the transformation is a fundamental prerequisite before setting the ball rolling. The shared process of diagnosis here takes the shape of a “map” on which everyone can see the start and finish and can discuss the route that the journey should take. At this point, a pragmatic approach is crucial: Where is the need most urgent? Where can we apply the greatest leverage? What will happen if we make simultaneous changes in multiple dimensions? And above all, at what level do we trigger the transformation – through a widespread approach reaching out to the whole organization; through a change of mindset in the management team; or at the level of individual leaders? All of these considerations appear on the map and can be assigned due priority.

Three examples will illustrate the potential issues here: If the capacity for collective innovation is particularly weak, with the management team barely ahead of the remainder of the organization in terms of mindset, then before going any further, development activities at the individual level are called for. If the CEO is two steps ahead of the organization in terms of emotional commitment, there is a risk that the organization will fail to understand them and they must then pay particular attention to the nature of their communications to prevent a communication breakdown. And if the company is at risk of losing its societal legitimation and the members of the management team are at odds with one another, the lever must be applied at the level of the dysfunctional team dynamics.

Once the route has been decided, the next step is to rapidly acquire shared experiences going forward and implement changes in the visible and invisible dimensions of the company. Because visible changes alone – a new organizational structure, revised processes or responsibilities – merely engender the hope that there will be a lasting change in behaviors. It is the invisible dimensions of the transformation – the changes in the corporate culture, the implicit assumptions, the informal communications – that actually drive the desired change in behaviors. So it is vital to rapidly demonstrate the success of new behavioral patterns. The easiest way to do this is through high-visibility projects in which employees can witness the new kind of leadership in action and see how it leads to unexpected successes. They get to experience how much energy is unleashed by being part of such projects and begin to imagine what such behaviors could achieve if applied across the company as a whole.

Of course, such projects need close attention from top management along with an absolute will to succeed. And above all they call for change leaders; pioneers who take responsibility for implementing radical change and assuring rapid successes. Preparing these projects demands a highly sensitive approach, particularly in the selection of the topics. These must be of vital importance to the future of the company and must necessitate behaviors that will be typical going forward. No less critical is the selection of the change leaders, who need to be people that the organization can readily identify with. Suitable project content could include both innovation topics that span the entire company (e.g. along the customer journey) or radical reform of the grand annual “rituals” that shape the corporate culture. In this respect we have witnessed far-reaching changes in the way a company sets itself objectives (next-generation strategic planning); in the way leadership defines performance and addresses the issue of underperformance (next-generation performance management); and in the way management potential is identified and developed (next-generation talent management). Wherever a company finds to its surprise that these rituals are being reshaped in the form of a genuine dialogue, we see the onset of a change in mindset – and the door opens to full-blown transformation.

When the change in mindset reaches a critical mass and sweeps sufficient open-minded abstainers off the fence, almost any organization is in a position to adapt its visible structures (organizational changes, new processes, etc.) to the revised environment under its own steam. The pride inherent in having set its own house in order is greater than any benefits supposedly achieved through a faster external solution. Transformations take time, even – or maybe particularly – in a fast-moving world. But anyone who now fails to embark on this carefully planned journey of change, and instead simply stands still or rushes off with neither map nor compass, will never make it to their goal.


The Spark that Lights the Flame

- Part 1: What makes leadership transformational?

- Part 2: The Five Dimensions of Transformational Leadership

- Part 3: Triggering the transformation

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