Transformation - why?
Jon Ayre
Jon Ayre Strategic Advisory Practice Lead

Our Thinking Tue 24th July, 2018

Transformation – what’s the point?

It’s a provocative headline, so firstly, an important disclaimer – I love transformation. It’s what I do.

I’ve spent my life changing things – for me, ‘change’ is just another way of spelling ‘opportunity’. So, when I caution against pursuing transformation for the sake of it, you can be sure I mean it.

Transformation is the new black; everyone’s doing it, and most organisations have a Programme to deliver it. Chances are you’re going through a transformation right now, and I’d be willing to put money on the fact that it’s a digital one.

But why are you doing it?

Transformation is not something you should do for fun. It affects everything you do, and change is upsetting and unsettling for your people – no matter how carefully it’s handled. Hence transformation should only be embarked upon for very sound, quantifiable reasons. Without those reasons it is at best meme following and at worst, wasteful procrastination.

If you don’t have a solid reason for your transformation, the wisest thing to do is stop it immediately. And the easiest way to stop it is to make it a programme.

This may seem counterintuitive to many people, but it’s important to note that ‘Transformation Programme’ is by definition an oxymoron. A programme embodies everything about your current culture and approach and formalises it as a set of processes coupled with governance; a transformation sets out to change these things.

A decision to deliver transformation using your existing ‘tried and tested’ techniques is the first sign that you do not actually believe in transformation as a concept. It’s a bit like deciding it’s quicker to get to London by plane, and then attempting to prove this by following a governance process that only allows train travel.

Transformation is not a programme; it’s not even a project. Transformation is something you do to programmes for a reason, and that reason is your strategy. It is your strategy that tells you whether to transform or not, and so to properly understand why you need to transform, first you need a strategy.

When is a strategy not a strategy?

When it’s a transformation strategy, or a digital strategy, or an innovation strategy, or an AI strategy, or… you get the picture. A strategy is not simply a decision to do a given thing; it is “a plan of action designed to achieve a long-term or overall aim”.

It follows that you cannot have a strategy to transform without knowing what you are transforming into, and why you’re doing it. And for that you need a purpose or aim.

Consider the following diagram; this is how I approach strategy. It has five phases, and is cyclic in nature. It’s not new; it’s just my take on a well understood planning cycle articulated by many people in similar ways (the most famous being Sun Tzu’s five elements, or more recently, John Boyd with his OODA loop).

Strategy cycle

When you consider this cycle, it becomes clear where transformation lives and from where the reasoning for it comes. It is also clear that it has three defining characteristics, namely that transformation:

  1. Is one of the many actions that form your approach to fulfilling your purpose, and it should be aligned to that purpose.
  2. Must be shaped to fit the environment in which you are operating, and may well be designed to change that environment.
  3. Is not a thing you set in motion and pursue to the bitter end; it is part of a broader strategic cycle and will change as you iterate.

What is not as clear but is equally (if not more) important to understand is that transformation is not a thing in itself. It’s a feature of the actions that make up your strategy. Some of these actions will result in transformation, others will not.

For example, if your first move is to test the market with a new digital offering, you might (rightly) decide to approach it in an agile manner. If agile is new to your organisation you will have to address this whilst delivering the outcome, and as a result agile will become part of your organisation DNA – but only where appropriate and proven. You will also start to transform into a digital organisation, but not everywhere.

If a job’s worth doing…

Some might perceive this piecemeal approach to be half-hearted and be tempted to take such success and apply it to everything they do. I would contend that this opinion arises from a one-size-fits-all mentality that is the bane of transformation. It results in unstable pendulum swings from one extreme to another; back and forth between agile and waterfall, centralised or federated, outsourced or insourced.

Well, one size doesn’t fit all. You can no more tighten a screw with a hammer than you can force a nail in with a screwdriver.

By following a purposeful strategy you will apply the right changes in the right places at the right time; the changes will be associated with delivery and you will learn as you go.

More importantly, the people who are affected by the change will be able to challenge, observe and adapt at their own pace. They will be able to see more clearly what’s in it for them as well as the organisation, and will be recognised and rewarded for the outcomes delivered during that transformation. They will be able to learn from others and from their own experiences, and recognise the essential part they are playing in the overall strategic goals of the organisation.

In conclusion: always ask why

By definition, transformation is new to your organisation, so the learning process is essential to identify what works where and why. And this brings us back to that most important of questions – “Why?”

In essence, there is no ‘why’ in ‘transformation’ – but there definitely is in ‘strategy’.


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