Transformation is now a dirty word. Can we claim it back?

Consigned to the ranks of the cliché, the meaningless and the outdated – transformation has now become a dirty word. Many an executive has put a blanket-ban on the term, dare to utter its name in the corridor and you’ll be met with hushed tones and fervent glances; “you can’t say that around here”. But just how did it become so tainted?

Firstly, transformation has typically been used as the catch-all term for a series of business activities that are simply not transformative at all. By its very nature, transformation hints at the radical; a reinvention of sorts. However, when organisations brand every shiny new project with a ‘transformation’ stamp, particularly those that are nothing more than a gradual evolution of the status quo, it begins to lose its meaning. For example: “Using customer data to inform our insights” or “working more collaboratively” are far from transformative. It has been misappropriated for years, with every half-baked corporate thought bubble using the T-word to give it some semblance of relevance.   
Secondly, in many people’s minds, the word itself is a synonym for restructure. Cost-out. Redundancies. Stress and anxiety. Whilst transformation may well include an element of restructuring, it should not consist entirely of top-down formulaic cost-out. Unfortunately, it has too often been used as euphemism for “significant job cuts to desperately hit this years’ profit target”.
Lastly, your typical ‘transformation program’ delivers a double whammy of both over-promising, and under-delivering. When we embark on such change, we expect to become something different, and something certainly improved. But when these programs finally limp to the finish line, over-budget, over-time with underwhelming results, many decide never to embark on that adventure again.
While this all feels fairly terminal, can we do something to alter the perception of transformation projects? Can we claim back the T-word? We would need to change our approach to transformation to be more purposeful in anchoring on the customer. Here’s how:
1. Be clear on the ambition and ensure it is truly transformative

There are a number of reasons why organisations undertake transformation – it might be to pivot or respond to evolving customers, challenging market economics, competitive threats or technology plays. It is crucial to understand why you are changing and what you are hoping to become. Most importantly, make sure it is a genuine transformation – otherwise, call it something else.
2. Anchor on a customer-centric purpose

We often see in-flight transformations that don’t have an articulated purpose. Alternatively, if they do have a purpose – it typically relates to a revenue or cost-out target. In either case, it is very difficult for people in the organisation to get behind and believe in a change without understanding the “why”. To drive buy-in, you need to anchor the purpose on the customer, building an enduring and inspiring direction that the whole organisation can become advocates for.
3. Start with the customer

In designing the future state, start with the customer and overlay the transformation objective. To drive growth, you must understand your most valuable customer segments, the moments that really matter to them, and the capabilities your organisation needs to excel in those instances. To identify efficiency gains, deprioritise the moments that matter least to your most valuable customer segments along with the organisational capabilities required to support them.
4. Sequence for early value release

Build your initiatives into a roadmap the traditional way, but be wary of ‘quick wins’ – they are only wins if they unlock value that enables you to proceed. Sequencing is critical, and it is essential to prove the benefit early, earning the right to continue – not only from an organisational or board point of view, but also from the frontline. With each initiative that makes life easier for the frontline – momentum and support for the next phase of transformation builds. 

5. Invest in change leadership

Even the best-intentioned transformations fail due to a lack of investment or importance placed on change leadership. Not necessarily top-down change management, instead empowering and equipping leaders at each layer of the business with the tools they need to drive their teams through the ambiguity with confidence. They also need to build the art of storytelling, to be able to visualise and articulate what the future will look like for their teams. Underestimating the change journey is a critical stumbling block for many. 
So, can we ever really claim back the T-word? As two great men have said before “Yes, yes we can!” But we need to relinquish the ‘transformations’ of old, and enter a new transformation world where we hold true to the meaning, put the customer first, prioritise value early and invest in the people and capabilities needed to drive the change.

Co-authored by Gabrielle Lukes-Mooney.

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