June 2020

10 reasons why we believe that transformation is mainly human…

… and success depends on the ability to tackle the tangible and the intangible

Recently, I met with someone who asked me: “can you explain why you believe that transformations are first and foremost human, and how that influences your approach to change management?”. It was a fair question as it came from somebody who is not in my trade and for whom transformation is a mainly organisation- and process-driven operation. So here’s my best effort to explain. Although in this area, it would be presumptuous to come up with “5 recipes…”, “3 tips…”, “8 habits…” – I’ll share with you what we at Alixio Change Management consider as core, guiding principles to approach a transformation the human way.

1. Give sense and direction
Transformation is not an ambition per se. It is a journey, a path. It is a means, not an end. However, a transformation project, especially if it is critical, massive, systemic, is often communicated as an objective per se.
This has two major consequences: the first is that some executive teams struggle to align on a transformation roadmap, when in fact, they lack clarity and alignment on the end-game, i.e. on the target and on the ambition that the transformation is supposed to serve. Obviously, this makes it very difficult to later communicate on the “case for change”, i.e. the reason for changing.
The other consequence is that, however “theoretically perfect” the transformation roadmap, people will not want to make the effort to change if they don’t understand why they should do so. Sometimes I start workshops with top managers by announcing that this man will take a job in a different country next month and this woman will change jobs altogether even though she doesn’t have the necessary skill-set. Why should they do it? Because I’m the boss and I know better. Guess what? I have very little success. But what else do they do when they ask of employees to be mobile, change roles, or learn a new job? A little reality check is useful, sometimes. If you ask life-changing efforts to people, you had better have a darn good reason. Failing that, some transformation projects may remain on the shelf, undeployed, unimplemented.

2. Find what motivates people to change and heave
Change requires effort. All the work done in neurosciences explain very clearly why the brain resists change: change is a risk, it means uncertainty, feelings of discomfort and temporary lack of competence, all feelings that adults will naturally, even unconsciously, resist and avoid. Risks that your right brain won’t let you take without fiercely resisting, because its job is to ensure survival, comfort, therefore habit. Understanding this is key. First of all because the naturally gifted or prone to changing aren’t the majority, second because it puts the need for change management into perspective.
One dimension of change management – of management – is how to help employees overcome their natural resistance, grow their resilience and find in themselves the motivation to change.
Now, have you heard of the often used parable of the cathedral?
In the Middle Ages, a soon-to-be-called Humanist (for he is interested in people…) visits the construction site of a cathedral; he asks a first worker what he is doing. The man answers that he is earning his bread. A few steps further, he meets another worker who says: “I am practising my art, exercising my profession”. The third one declares blissfully that he is building a cathedral. Matter-of-factly, all three are working. But each expresses different motivation levers and it is no less noble to be faring for one’s family, than to see the grand scheme of things.
This story (also known as the rock-breaker tale) has been told and modified so often that I am sure it is far from the original tale, but it is used to illustrate that people may have very different interests in doing things. And that for some, understanding the overarching ambition will be everything. Others will just want to know what’s in it for them. Often a subtle mix of several things. The case for change must cater for all and help everyone find good reasons to undertake a sustained effort to change.

3. Engage collectively and individually
This introduces a new insight: in order to succeed, transformation projects must embark employees both individually and collectively. To reach their goals, transformation projects need the commitment of the multitude. One person will never be enough to change a whole plant, BU or company. However, the choice to accept the change, to apply new ways, to learn new competencies, to build new collaborations, to change one’s lifelong convictions or habits, is primarily an individual one. I’d go even as far as saying that it is an intimate one. In order to create the expected snow-ball effect, you need people who decide to actually start changing and implementing what is required of them. Our experience shows that this decision, and the consequent efforts, are the result of a personal meditation: here are a few illustrations of how this reflexion translates in the real world:
“I’m no game-changer, never have been. Others will start and in my own time, I’ll see if I can follow” (leadership team member, pharma sector)
“I agree with the rationale of the merger. But I don’t like what we are becoming. This is not us.” (strategic marketing director, energy sector)
“I don’t know what will come out of this merger, but I am interested in experiencing the integration. I’ll have time to decide if I stay or leave later. But I want to give it a chance”. (manager, telecom sector)
“This company desperately needs to change. Whatever comes out of it, it is worth a try.” (manager, cleaning industry)
“My job is not impacted by this PSE (job-cutting plan). But I wonder, do I want to stay in the company? Is it not time to go see if the grass is greener elsewhere?” (manager, food industry)
It all stems from there, right then. Looking at the change curve, originally the grief curve (designed by Dr Kubler-Ross in the 50’s), we know there is a critical moment when people make up their minds, to go along with the change, or not, and create strategies for themselves to fight, flee, face.
These theorical canvasses come to life when you actually drive the change with real people on the field. How do you get these quotes? You have those conversations.

4. Embark your line managers
The people who are the most likely, the best-placed, the most legitimate to trigger those conversations are the line managers. I am talking about N+1s, be it a supervisor or a leadership team member. The French talk about “manager de proximité”, which gives a better idea of who we mean: the managers who are close enough to know you by name, know your situation in life, know your motivation levers, have experienced hardships and achievements with you.
Obviously, there are three pre-requisites:
– They are managers indeed, not experts who have been promoted to a title but do not act as managers, and sometimes do not have a team. They devote time to actually managing colleagues.

– They are confident enough in their management skills to not shy away from these conversations with their team members. It is amazing how much people are willing to share when someone takes quality time to ask genuine questions and pay attention to the answer. Fear is very often at the root of one’s reasons to resist. Fear of being inadequate, fear of failing. Talking is acknowledging the person, hearing their doubts, asking relevant questions, helping them reach decisions, reassuring them if possible. This may be the tipping point for some.

– They are clear on their own feelings about the transformation and how it impacts them. I have met with managers who did not know about their own situation in the new set-up, and some who knew they did not have a job – and still they had those conversations for the sake of their teams. Managers need to be aware of their feelings, to try and avoid introducing a strong bias in the conversation, with team-members having to deal with their boss’s emotions on top of their own. It is not easy. Support, coaching, training, whatever form it takes, will help them do that.
And in passing, not only do managers play an important role with the teams, but they are the ones who will help maintain business continuity and keep people at work.
Needless to say that if you have never considered and recognised your managers as key players in the organisation, it is too late to suddenly decide to ask them for the favour of being the champions of the transformation and playing that active role with their teams.

5. Start with the leaders
Reaping the fruits of a transformation programme may take months, even years, whereas CEOs are mostly incentivized on short-term results. This may explain why some consider that their main role is to initiate the momentum, design the target and the roadmap and launch. They then move on to their next tasks. Truth is, that’s when the bulk of the transformation work remains to do.
The lack of sponsorship from leaders can have devastating consequences, such as slowing decision-making capability to a stop, disengaging project and management teams. Their apparent lack or loss of interest shows when the project is no longer on the executive team’s agenda, and its slowly fades into oblivion.
Similarly, not following up on short- and longer-term KPIs and results, can convey the idea that the transformation is not so crucial after all so why should employees bother? They can fall back to old ways.
Lastly, it always strikes me when a project that has been prepared with time, energy, drive is launched and the only ones who don’t feel concerned by the change itself is the Leadership Team. They will ask for change from all their teams, but they will not think about changing their own ways.
Leaders are so important to make the change credible, to show the way, to walk the talk – and all that. They need to incarnate the change. Everybody looks up to the boss for some significant change.

6. Invest in collective intelligence
People are competent. That is a belief, a bet, a world of possibilities.
Some companies pay big money for big consultancies to design strategies, organisations, processes, plans, based on market knowledge, experience, best practices. To also benefit from the credibility of their brand names and reputation which will reassure the Board.
Our approach is different. We believe that people, wherever they are in an organisation, are competent. This means that our clients know when they call us, that they will remain in the driver’s seat. Our role will be to guide them just enough to deliver their own, unique strategy, organisation, project. We will help with methodology, expertise of transformation projects and mechanisms, experience, knowledge of their market segment to enable them to come up with their best shot.
It is very gratifying to hear a client say: “we did it. We achieved this ourselves, together”. How gratifying for them, when discussions were tough before we started, when they thought they couldn’t do it. When the organisation we design is theirs, it is ready for roll-out and it works immediately because it was co-designed with the people who are going to work everyday with it. When a strategy is understood and federates because employees have had a say and have been able to contribute. When managers navigate their new management model with ease because they helped reshape it.
The most extreme example I have been lucky to experience was a transformation project, mixing a post-merger integration, a reorganisation of countries in clusters and deep changes in ways of working, ending up in business results delivered and higher engagement rates thanks to the contribution of more than 2000 employees from around 20 countries.
Inviting a whole support function, BU employees, plant workers, managers to contribute can be a true stepping stone in a transformation project. Not only because their voice is heard, their ideas are embarked, but also because they feel they have been trusted as competent contributors. So although participative methods take time in the first place, they do accelerate the buy-in and help embed changes more deeply.

7. Realize what you ask for
We always recommend, at the start of a transformation journey, to go deep in the analysis of what the expected change will concretely mean and require. Two very good reasons to do that:
– We know that imposed change is not popular. Nobody likes to be landed with decisions impacting their everyday work and perhaps their future at work without being consulted. The deeper the transformation, the more managers anticipate the worst from their teams. And so they tend to focus on the negative consequences of the changes, and on the bad perceptions they will trigger. Deep diving into a transformation project means deliberately looking at the positive as well as the negative impacts. This may help realize that if there are no benefits for the employees, it is going to be tough asking them to adhere. If there are few, management teams can be invited to identify and even to create benefits, opportunities or acceptable compensations for the employees.
– Going through this analysis sometimes is a wake up call for some who had not taken the reflexion far enough to realize concretely what would be required of the organisation, the workload, the pressure on business, the bottleneck in terms of resources or deadlines – or, on the contrary, the lack of deadlines, the projects that lag, the non-existent KPIs, the multiplication of not-so-important competing and conflicting projects. It is a reality check – a key condition to get anywhere.

8. Transform while you can, not when you must
Despite the literature on the necessity to create a sense of urgency to steer a transformation successfully, there may be a strong case to reconsider this.
It is true that when employees see no urgency to change, they might drag their feet. However, companies that leave it too long and are left with no other option than to transform because they are cornered by their Board, the competition or in survival mode, might regret it. Here’s why:
– People might resent change. But they won’t forgive top managers for not anticipating, not taking measures to avoid crisis mode and forcing everyone into a tight spot.
– Anticipating often means having a choice: a smooth transition rather than a forced disruption, more resources and time to help employees, steer competencies, test & learn initiatives, etc.
– It is easier to maintain motivation and productivity with a controlled situation and clear milestones.

9. Embrace the “people” mindset
Have you noticed how transformations trigger all five of the primary human emotions? Fear, anger, sadness, joy, distaste? How people express surprise, denial, feelings of treason, try to negotiate, see opportunities, reveal unsuspected resources.
A change is first and foremost emotional, then only, rational. But the two will remain intimately mixed.
Don’t leave your employees alone to cope with a transformation. Help them get there. Train them. Support them. Invite them to contribute and improve proposed processes and principles. Talk to them, frequently, face-to-face, treat them like adults, provide them with material to make up their minds, give them good reasons to stay or to leave, show the example. Create opportunities to experiment the change, to try and learn. Monitor their workload, recognize the extra-mile, endorse change ambassadors, recognize the role of managers and support them. There are so many ways to make your project their project.

10. Steer your culture
What is culture? It is the past, sometimes a golden age, the founder, the collective achievements and setbacks. It is the future, collective and individual. It is the DNA, the code that singles the company out, makes it different. It is that unique blend of tacit and explicit, taboos and totems, rituals and beliefs about how to win a deal, how to do business, how to behave, what is noble and vile. Some think it is fluffy to talk about culture, some know that it is critical to address it in a transformation. Very often, it will be the thing that employees will want to protect, the thing that grounds them when everything around them is changing.
Everything involving people, geographies, vocation, ways of working, decision-making, collaboration, reporting is cultural. And it provides a lot of game-changing opportunities as long as it is well respected and handled with care.

There is such a potential for increasing the success rates of transformation projects. Part of the solution is here, at hand’s reach. It lays with the Human factor.