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Blood Sweat & Years – Business Transformation Doesn’t Happen Overnight

Recognising the need to transform a company usually happens over time as the status quo begins performing badly. For example, two of the firm’s biggest clients leave for greener pastures, or the three products that account for the bulk of the sales revenue peak and begin the downside of their life cycle. Maybe management has pushed the systems overhaul down the road so often that problems loom on the horizon. For whatever the reasons the situation becomes clear. If the company is going to survive long term, things must change.

After accepting that survival depends on transforming the company the first step is understanding what is going wrong. What has changed to drive business in a negative direction? It’s important to define the problems as clearly as possible. An undefined problem can’t be fixed. Talk to the people in the organisation. They are a guaranteed source of knowledge about how things could work better, or once worked better. They will have strong opinions. It is important to remember, the key to receiving honest answers from employees is making them feel safe in offering those opinions. Create teams with one or two people from every department and have those teams gather data about everything. The more comprehensive the collection of data, the clearer the picture provided by the analysis.

Equally as important as clearly defining the problems, is clearly defining the company’s core competencies. One could argue that understanding what a company does well is the most important component when planning change. Ask employees, suppliers, customers or clients, and any other stakeholder that may have some insight to offer, what does this business do better than competitors? What value does the company provide better than anyone else? What products or services would customers miss most if this company no longer existed? Once these questions are answered the next step is understanding how the company does these things. Understand the what and how of the core competencies clearly, and a solid foundation exists upon which to plan and build the transformation.

Armed with a clear understanding of the performance problems and performance assets it’s time to focus on one thought about what is going to occur. The most important concept to understand about the transformation process is; success will take time, patience, and some pain. Some things can help ease the pain and reduce the time, but nothing will eliminate them altogether. The next step involves planning and it might sound strange but its almost equal in importance to time.

The planning starts at the end. What that means for planners is they must envision in detail the desired result of their plan. Certain questions require answering. For example, when the transformation is complete how will the company look? What structure is needed? Does moving forward require massive expansion or stepping back until on surer footing? Define the desired result as clearly as earlier processes have defined the status quo. Much like tourists studying a road map in unfamiliar territory planners now know where they are and where they want to go. All that remains is choosing the best way from one point to the other. Consider one warning about mapping the road forward. Don’t hesitate to cut portions of the status quo. Planners may be tempted to keep this or that based on romantic, or sentimental notions of what brought the company success in the past. Think brutally like Tony Soprano, if it isn’t a good earner, or worse if it is a drain on the organisation, no matter how beloved, whack it.

The plan is in place. The first step at this stage is making sure all the stakeholders support the plan. Stakeholders are shareholders, upper management, entry level employees, and everyone in between. Consulting with suppliers or other outside vendors is also a good idea. Buy in from the entire organisation only happens by using the three most important fundamentals necessary when executing a business transformation. Communication, communication, communication.

Leaders must clearly articulate the goal, the plan to reach the goal, every individual’s part in the plan, and what success means individually, and as a total company. Use multiple avenues to communicate the message, including written, verbal, video, and online presence. Using multiple avenues of communication will ensure that everyone involved knows what it will take to transform the new company vision into a reality. As leaders engage in talking to employees and articulating the new company vision they need to identify the informal leaders among the employees. These are people whose peers follow them out of respect and not because of a formal title. Look for them, seek them out, and ask them to help. Many of these people are natural leaders and will genuinely feel honored by the recognition. These informal leaders are usually the ones that make things happen every day in ways that often go unnoticed by formal managers. It is impossible to overstate their value in times of transformation.

All levels of management must stay engaged as the transformation process unfolds. Identify what is working and what is not working. Prepare contingency plans for the potential problems you can think of and stay alert for the unforeseen problems. Planning for every possible thing that may go wrong is an impossibility; however, acting quickly to change direction when something doesn’t work is possible. Fast action will highlight the organisation’s commitment to success. As the process unfolds look for small victories and spread the word so everyone can celebrate the success. Each new victory, however small, will motivate the organisation to keep moving forward.

Expect difficulty maintaining motivation at times. Change is hard for and on people. Losing focus is easy when employees feel discouraged. Particularly frustrating is the experience of the employee who was extremely good at their job and now because of the change has to endure the stress of learning a new job. Try to present this as a positive by emphasising the challenge, and allow adequate time for people to learn their new jobs. Keep the pain of the transformation, and the bumps experienced along the way to a minimum by ensuring that adequate resources like people, equipment, and money are always available.

Transformation takes time, enormous amounts of time in some cases, and a herculean effort from all involved. The people chosen to lead a project like this must, as much as possible, look at it from a people perspective. Jobs, schedules, career paths, and lives are all likely to face some degree of disruption. The goal is creating a future that works well for the entire organisation. Remember to communicate, attempt to find successes and praise those responsible, and pivot when something doesn’t work. Break the total project into smaller pieces to mitigate the overwhelming feeling of wondering if this can be done. Stay the course, protect your people, focus on core competencies and bask in the reward of a very significant achievement.

Transforming a company from likely mediocrity to potential greatness is a job worth the cost in blood, sweat, and years.


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Neil Parker
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