In a recent survey, Bain found that most business transformation activities failed to meet or achieve what was expected of them. 38% of them produced less than half of the expected results, 50% settled for most of what was expected and only 12% met or exceeded the objectives.
The main reasons for this lack of success? Not defining the reasons for the transformation exercise clearly enough – and then not ensuring that the staff of the organisation are brought along as part of the change process.
For a business to “transform” implies some change to its processes and how it presents itself to the wider world. This also requires its people to change the way they work – and perhaps change how they see the business and their role in it. People are naturally resistant to change – sometimes at a level they are not consciously aware of. Actively helping them make this change can go a long way towards making the transformation successful.
What matters to people is how the changes will affect them – and this may be at a deeper level than a simple change in process. Motivation is closely related to how individuals feel about their competence, their autonomy and their membership of a group or team – all of which can be impacted by the transformation process. Understanding how the proposed changes will affect these individuals and then mitigating if possible, or at least managing the communication strategy sensitively can help.
Over the last 25 years, I have managed or advised on many restructuring and transformation activities. The key learning for me over this period was the importance of the approach to people. Treating them as individuals and going to lengths to understand their individual circumstances and concerns, changed the environment and allowed for productive – although often still difficult – conversations to take place. The challenge in most cases was that the objectives set for the transformation were generally about specific metrics being achieved within a specific period. Taking the time required to understand the details of people’s concerns was often not an option.
This is why I am a strong proponent of including a separate coaching function within a transformation programme. Working closely with the programme director and the executive management, they would provide another dimension to the activities, focussing on providing support to individuals through individual or group coaching sessions.
The role of the coach in the process is also very different to the programme director or the individuals tasked with delivering a specific outcome. The coach is there to support the individuals – each of which is effectively their “client” for the engagement and whose interests and wellbeing are their focus. Clearly, dedicating time to each person is an expensive commitment, but if it is well managed and targeted at those individuals with the largest challenges – or the most impact on the wider organisation or its customers – it can make a big difference to the success of the overall transformation.
Coaching can be defined in many ways, but the core principle is that the coach is helping the individual to come to their own answers and decisions about the issues that are affecting them. It is not consulting or teaching – where the answers are already known, or even mentoring, where there is a significant level of advice being added by a more experienced person. A good coach will provide a “safe space” in which the person being coached is able to reflect on their personal motivation and current situation. By listening intently, and by using respectfully challenging questions, the coach can enable the person being coached to develop a better understanding of who they are – and who they can be – in the context of the transformed organisation.
1 – Within an organisation there will be a proportion of the employees who will be more impacted by the proposed changes. This may be because their roles are more deeply impacted – or because they are having to face customers or their own staff on a day to day basis who are constantly challenging the need for the change process. These individuals are having to suppress their own fears and concerns to stay positive about the programme, but also need supporting themselves.
One good example from an organisation in which I managed some large transformation activities, was the HR teams who were facing very challenging situations on a day to day basis, and who were also subject to change themselves. They handled the situation professionally, but would have benefited from some coaching help, to allow them to talk frankly about their own concerns, and perhaps to review and validate the messages they were providing.
2 – For change to occur throughout the organisation it must include changing behaviours and many personal assumptions and beliefs may have to change as well. Some of these assumptions may be quite deep seated – and may constrain the ability to act differently or to understand and accept the rationale behind the transformation.
By allowing individuals to explore their model of the world and how this colours their perceptions of the organisation and their role in it, some of these assumptions can be more clearly articulated and understood. They can then be tested against the new realities and a revised understanding created which potentially enables the individual to move forward with a different perception of how they can add value.
I worked for an organisation that had been effectively for sale for some time, although this was not known by most of the staff. When finally acquired, some difficult restructuring actions were undertaken by the new owners. By being more frank with the staff about the actual position of the company, and the options that the executives had been facing, the actual changes were put into context, which helped the wider company come to terms with the assumptions they had made about the previous organisation as a viable entity in its own right.
3 – We often fear the worst in a particular situation, and this is not helped by storing it up and perhaps endlessly worrying about what might happen. In a corporate environment where information may not be fully available – or where there are many conflicting versions of the potential outcomes floating around, this can become very stressful. By providing an environment where a person can be listened to, no matter how irrational their fears may be, they can be brought into the open and perhaps considered from several angles to help get them into context.
Being able to identify and articulate these concerns – in a supportive and fully confidential relationship – can start a process of acceptance that these fears exist and that they can be addressed. By allowing people to express their feeling – perhaps to vent some frustration – and to better understand why they feel the way they do, passive resistance is also reduced. Ideally, they have been listened to, they have been able to create a new personal model and their fears are out in the open where they can be rationally explored.
The perceptions of people throughout the organisation can be very different to those at the top who are making the decisions and who have far better knowledge of what is going on. I worked for a privately held business that was being sold – which if successful would be of considerable benefit to a few of the original founders. They were understandably very positive about the reasons for the change, but found it difficult to remember that the reality would be quite different for many of the staff. Coaching the senior team in this example would also have been of benefit to the wider organisation to develop greater sensitivity around the communication and a reduction of the perceived “us and them” around the outcomes.
There is always risk in a transformation programme, but clearly thinking about the top-level objectives and how these are aligned with the overall vision and strategy of the company helps to set the context for the detailed plan. Ensuring that the plan considers the people impact is critical. Understanding how they will need to change to reflect the new organisation – and then proactively helping them through this change process by providing a well targeted coaching programme, can make the transformation beat the odds and be seen as a success.
 Bain Risk History Survey. 253 Respondents. 2016
 See for example Deci & Ryan (1985) who set out their theory of motivation and optimal functioning: Self Determination Theory or SDT.