The Predictable Passages of Organizational Transformation

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Navigate the future:
The predictable passages of
Organizational Transformation
In an orderly, predictable, safe and sane world, the
very thought of a leader embarking on a journey of
fundamental organizational transformation would be
considered radical, if not irresponsible. On the other hand,
given the environment we have experienced in recent
years, and will likely continue to experience for the
foreseeable future, ignoring the need to transform could
be considered an act of serious neglect by any responsible
The considerable challenge, as always in times of
great uncertainty, lies in how the leader weighs the risks
and opportunities while, at the same time, determining
the right moment.
• If things are going well – you may not wish to tinker,
let alone transform
• If things are going poorly – you may have already lost
your best chance for success
Bottom line, survival has always been dependent
upon our ability to adapt to circumstance. In this way, the
business world is no different from the animal world,
except you might assume the more intelligent species
would be better at transformation and adaptation than
they really are. Transformation, which is several degrees of
complexity up the food chain from traditional ‘Change
Management’, is something very few do well.
In my view, this is in large measure due to the fact
most leaders have a less than complete understanding of
the transformational journey and the various stages,
phases or passages they must navigate in order to be
successful in their transformational efforts. In this article I
will attempt to describe the process and share insights on
the predictable hurdles along the way.
My experience with large scale transformational
change suggests there are three distinct phases to the
transformational journey, and nine very distinct and
predictable ‘passages’ which must be navigated. The first
phase is what I call the ‘Getting Ready Phase’.
In this stage, the body of the organization is already
well aware of the challenges it faces, and some people
have already begun to sense that something is wrong. In
fact, those at the more junior levels often spot the signs
first. They are typically much closer to the customer, and
much more aware of the obstacles and barriers that are
getting in the way of delivering on the value proposition.
They see the gaps in vivid techno colour, but they feel
powerless to effect change, or even catch the attention of
those further up the organizational pyramid. They begin
to hunker down for bad news and bad times.
Eventually, the leaders above begin to sense the issues
for themselves, although they almost always lag in their
awareness. Slowly, they begin to examine the evidence
which suggests things are not going according to plan.
The first reaction is almost always to reject the need for
large scale change and, instead, try to put a short-term fix
in place to buy themselves time. They debate amongst
themselves the reasons for the difficulties, but they are
typically more interested in attributing blame than they
are in addressing the roots causes which lie deeper below
the surface.
Assuming the organization, and its leaders, come to
appreciate the messages being telegraphed by the ‘faint
signals from the periphery’ suggesting transformation
may be required, they move on to the very difficult stage
of agreeing on the diagnosis.
Almost every business leader talks about the insidious
Doug Williamson
Spring 2015
nature of organizational silos and the challenges of
achieving alignment. These are the two evil step sisters
that, over and over again, cause organizations to languish
in mediocrity or die in painful agony. Despite how
damaging these issues can be, it is always surprising how
difficult it is for otherwise capable and decent leaders to
come to terms with abolishing these well-known selfimposed
barriers to sustainable high performance and
serial success.
Coming to terms with reality, no matter how painful
that reality may be, is something leaders must find the
strength to do. Getting the organization to rally around a
call to action and calibrate on the need to transform takes
time, energy, determination and strong character. Giving
people at all levels the truth, and trusting they will
respond in kind, is an act of leadership courage and it
provides the fuel to carry on with fierce resolve and
unwavering determination. It is at this point the
organization will experience the first of two big ‘dips’ in
the transformational journey. To quote the author Seth
Godin, these dips are the necessary rite of passage we
must go through on the journey to excellence and high
performance. They must be embraced as part of the
journey, which is not a straight line, but rather a choppy,
uneven and turbulent progression.
Phase 2 is the ‘Beginning to Perform Phase’ of the
transformational journey, and it also has three distinct
passages. Leaders often make the mistake of believing
they can muscle their way through this phase and, by way
of sheer will and determination, force the organization to
speed up and get to high performance in a much shorter
period of time than it really takes.
This is a fundamental flaw in judgment which has
caused many a good leader to fail, and many a good
organization to crash and burn.
Every successful journey begins with good planning
and preparation. In the case of organizational
transformation, this is about planning and preparing for
the surprises, setbacks and struggles you will experience
along the way.
Preparation, in this sense, is not about eliminating or
even mitigating all the risks and trying to chart a certain
path. It is the exact opposite! It is about developing
mindsets, attitudes, beliefs and behaviours that will allow
you to cope with the ‘curve balls’ which you will face. Too
many leaders believe they must control the process in
great detail when, in fact, the focus should be on
preparing people to be tenacious, resilient and adaptive
to ongoing change.
This is the half-way point in the transformational
journey. The people have committed, the leadership team
has calibrated, and the organization has been primed and
prepared for the journey – including the inventible dips it
will encounter along the way. Culture and values have
been cemented deep into the organizational tissue, and
the vitally important and influential middle management
group has been galvanized. Now the real work begins!
Human nature is a truly strange and unpredictable
beast. Amongst our many quirks is a tendency to want to
get past the bad as soon as we can in order to get back to
the good. In organizational transformation, this human
trait needs to be tempered if you want the breakthroughs
that are possible in true transformation. Simply put, you
have to avoid the desire to declare victory too soon!
True transformation takes time and, while you
certainly want early success, you need to be careful to not
overplay those successes and think they are guarantees
that you are safely on the road. The fact of the matter is,
those early successes are probably just bringing you back
to a baseline you should have been at in the first place.
The truly great transformational leaders know the
hard work needed is much more than simply gathering
the low hanging fruit. They tap into the positive energy
flow, but they use it to push ahead, harder, faster, bolder,
resisting the tyranny of complacency at every turn.
It has often been accepted as gospel that people hate
change. The trouble is that is just not true, but instead an
unsophisticated form of popular folklore. The truth of the
matter is that people hate the emotions triggered by
uncertainty and fear. As a result, there is a base human
response to the passage through the Early Success stage
that creates a tendency to plateau. People want to coast.
To put it another way, they want a rest from the fearless
pressure of the uncertainty monster and they pause for a
time-out that can last for quite a while if you are not
At this point, leaders of the organization on a
transformational journey need to pay very special
attention to the organizational pulse. They have to sense
the early signs of an emerging plateau and get ahead of
it. The narrative within the organization needs to change
and, truth be told, some changes in key people will very
likely have to be made.
Senior leaders must take careful and objective stock
of their people and their capacity to shift into a yet higher
gear. The skills and aptitudes needed from this point on
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will change, and wise leaders play it differently. Rather
than slowing down when a corner approaches, they shift
gears and accelerate into the corner. This decision is what
allows the organization to catapult ahead, and avoid a
prolonged drift sideways.
We have now entered Phase 3, “The Determination
Phase”. This is the portion of the journey that will either
allow the organization to realize its true potential, and
reap a dividend on its transformational agenda, or enter a
period of decline and probably death.
Organizations that have been successful in navigating
this part of the journey have all tended to go on and
achieve a level of sustainably superior performance that
most others can only envy from a distance. This is rarified
territory, and it can only be claimed by those who have:
• Taken the long view and avoided short-term
• Operated according to a clear set of values and
guiding principles
• Honed their Talent IQ and really learned how to get
the most out of people
• Banished complacency from every single pore of the
• Transformed who they are, what they have to offer,
and how they go to market
• Evolved ahead of the curve rather than having the
future catch them by surprise
Organizations that embark on a transformational
journey are taking a risk. They know the path to success is
not a straight line and there will be setbacks along the
way. In a world filled with turbulence and uncertainty, it is
safe to assume that, at some point, the resolve of a
transforming organization will be tested by an event not
of their own choosing, and most likely occurring at a time
of great inconvenience.
This crisis, whether internally or externally generated,
is a true moment of reality for the organization, and will
determine whether the heavy lifting done up to that point
has helped the organization develop the new muscles
necessary to break through.
As the organization survives the crisis, it emerges
stronger, more confident and more capable of tackling the
last leg of the transformational journey. This is the same
type of boost a spacecraft gets as it rounds the moon and
catapults back toward earth. The energy created is used as
a supplementary source to help the organization propel
itself forward.
You know that wonderful feeling of relief when the
wheels of your car grip the road in the midst of a snow
storm, and allow you to avoid getting stuck. The traction
phase of organizational transformation creates the same
feeling. The leaders gain a stronger sense of imminent
success and the body of the organization responds in kind,
putting its shoulder to the wheel.
Traction allows everything to just seem easier and to
come more naturally. The barriers, burdens and hurdles
seem to melt away, and the organization picks up speed as
it feeds off its newly cemented confidence. This is the
moment you have worked for and, while not without its
own perils and hard work, it takes place within a new
climate of focused commitment and fierce resolve.
Savour this moment as the reward for all the hard
work done along the way but, rather than coast, put your
foot to the floor and accelerate.
The organization deserves a reward for all its efforts,
trials, tribulations and hard work. The leaders have taken
their people through a difficult and tumultuous journey.
The prize at the end is an organization that is running on
all cylinders, with good balance, sound perspective and
growing capability. The fundamentals have been tackled
to the ground and the people, policies and processes are
all delivering as hoped for. The organization has become
a smooth running engine, and now the task changes once
again as it enters the final passage.
Sustaining success is hard work!
While it may be the end of the transformational
journey, it’s not the end of the hard work. The work may
be different, but it is equally challenging and by no means
is sustainable success guaranteed. It must be earned and
re-earned everyday day, in every way, by every person.
Keeping the organization on its forward trajectory
requires constant care, attention and fortitude.
The leaders must be vigilant like never before. They
must remain alert to the tell-tale signs of moving
backwards. They must continue to make big changes on
many fronts, but the energy required should be less and
the ease of execution should be greater. Staying in a good
place means staying alert to the slow re-emergence of bad
The decision to embark on a truly transformational
journey should not be taken lightly. The leaders must
commit to seeing it through and must understand there
are predictable passages they need to navigate along the
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way. Promises should be few, and guarantees abolished.
No transformational leader can allow ego and bravado to
take control of them, their actions or their words. The
promises should only be about the hard work that lies
ahead and the reward at the end of the tunnel. Realism
and truth must become the order of the day and the
touchstone for the behaviour of leaders at all levels.
The leaders can and should lay out the broad strokes,
but avoid the temptation to offer the fine detail to those
who cannot exist inside the cloud of uncertainty and
ambiguity. The leader should set the compass heading,
but avoid handing out the detailed road maps that many
people will be demanding. The leader must appeal to
heart over head.
Here are some things to think about, as you begin to
consider what’s next.
Your first task is picking the team. There is a huge
difference between the operating team you may need to
keep the business running, and a transformation team
whose job it will be to reimagine the future. The skills and
aptitudes are different but, most significantly, it is the
mindsets and attitudes that are different. The leader must
draft wisely, and from all levels of the organization, when
putting together a truly whole brained, cross functional
and cross disciplinary group of advisors and agents.
Your first act of courage will be to trust the coalition
with an open, honest assessment of where the
organization currently stands and the obstacles and
imminent risks it faces. The leader must be willing to pull
back the veil and call things as they really are. There can
be no room for obfuscation or gilding the lily – it’s the
straight goods, raw and ugly, that must be put on the
Members of the guiding coalition must be given a
clear choice – join the battle or step aside. This must truly
be a coalition of the willing, and the willingness must be
to break the old model apart and start with a blank sheet
of paper. There can be no room for biases, sacred cows or
antique paradigms. The task must be undertaken as it was
in the movie Apollo 7, where the entire mission was about
getting the ship back to earth no matter what.
Decide what really matters and what will have the
biggest impact. Do the hard work first and forget about
the pseudo benefits of ‘low hanging fruit’. The journey
will not be determined by early wins, but rather by new
choices about the stuff that really counts. Strip away the
excuses. Face the demons. Tackle the wicked problems
that for too long have been acting like sludge in your
organizational engine.
Take control of the narrative. Lead from the front and
talk to the organization in real terms, appealing to
emotions and setting expectations realistically. Offer to
accept any help that anyone can offer and recruit
volunteers to the cause. Remember that your words will
carry extra meaning, and that words matter. Pick those
words that will resonant in their simplicity and common
sense. Don’t embroider the edges, present the facts in all
their dirty glory and, most importantly, offer hope while
promising hard work.
Doug Williamson is CEO of The Beacon Group and author of the book
Straight Talk on Leadership. He specializes in organizational and
leadership transformation, working with senior executives, their teams
and their organizations around the world. Feel free to contact Doug at or tweet him @bluntleader.