Transformation in the face of adversity
Sep 14, 2021
Organizations face powerful challenges that require deep change. Why do some succeed and flourish while others flounder?
In my experience, the main difference among organizations is this: the culture. As I’ve discussed previously, culture is the curveball that takes companies with similar intentions, technology, and circumstances and sends them down wildly different paths.
I have seen two common approaches to delivery, which I call "Top-down" and "Bottom-up."
In the top-down approach, executives make decisions about business and technology transformation. They select a course of action, and the rest of the business carries it out.
Figure 1. Executives originate the roadmap. With top-level support, the delivery team overcomes challenges on time—smooth deployment results in successful transformation.
Executives take responsibility for communicating the plan to the business. They clearly convey the goals and strategy and their expectation that the business will work to those goals.
Delivery teams are empowered by executive support. Everyone involved understands the importance of the goals, the intent of the strategy, and their own part in implementing that strategy. The entire business mobilizes to deliver the desired outcome.
As a result, the delivery team can overcome any challenges because the whole organization has a common understanding of what’s asked and the required business outcome.
In bottom-up delivery, executives still have the decision-making power and choose what action the business will take. However, in contrast to the top-down approach, they delegate the power to carry out the strategy to the delivery team.
Figure 2. Executives originate the roadmap but leave the execution to the delivery team. Without sufficient authority to resolve conflict, the team is trapped in a cycle of resistance and compromise.
It falls to the delivery team to communicate strategy to the business and require cooperation. The team is fully prepared to implement and deploy the technology but lacks the skills or authority to communicate the top-level executive vision.
The delivery team is in an awkward position. The business is skeptical. Without executive support, the delivery team's efforts foster resistance and recalcitrance. The business’s history and culture empower it to push back rather than facilitate change. Resistance escalates until the delivery team decides to seek wider input to counter skepticism.
The delivery team tries to satisfy all stakeholders—that is, nearly everyone in the organization. The delivery team takes all opinions into account, whether or not those views are relevant to the original goals and strategy. This consultation is an opportunity to voice dissatisfaction about pre-existing problems. The business may have worked around such problems for years, but they suddenly become the delivery team's problems to fix, regardless of whether time or budget is available. What ends up happening is that questions and requests escalate up the management chain, taking time to resolve.
The entire implementation effort becomes a rollercoaster of resistance, negotiation, compromise, and feature creep. This process dilutes the original strategy and delays transformation. The organization risks failing to realize the intended benefits. Worse, delays may make the result useless because the world moves on, rendering the changes irrelevant.
This happens when executives surrender accountability to the delivery team. But there are effective ways to avoid or mitigate these pitfalls.
The winning strategy? A hybrid approach
Realistically, no organization can execute a pure top-down delivery. The key is to make accountability align with decision-making power. Decision-makers must be responsible for the effort at a high level. Strong leadership, clarity of vision, and defined scope are essential. Here are principles to keep in mind:
- Have a thoughtful, resilient plan. Don’t impose changes blindly. You need to understand what the business wants and needs—without getting bogged down in a collection of wish lists. Take a step back from your immediate sphere and approach change coherently, considering the needs of staff and customers, budgets, compliance, and the current environment.
- Have a communication strategy with no grey areas. It’s crucial to convey what’s changing, when, and why. Set realistic expectations. If the plan entails a learning curve or a temporary period of inconvenience, be transparent about it.
- Know your organization. Is it internet-native, an early cloud adopter that can easily embrace new technology? Or is it a heritage enterprise from the pre-digital era? In the latter case, the business might resist new technology. Is the business siloed? If individual fiefdoms focus excessively on their own areas, they might have a tradition of resisting change. Put extra effort into persuading them.
- Understand problems early, before your plan is finalized. Communicate with key representatives from every relevant aspect of the business. Be aware of corner cases.
- Some aspects of transformation are always more difficult. Meet 90% of your goals quickly by focusing on low-hanging fruit while working in parallel on the difficult 10% that is high-hanging. That way, you'll realize value more quickly, build goodwill, and have free time to focus on complex areas.
- Ensure that issues are resolved at the proper pay grade. If there’s a serious challenge, it must be handled by personnel with the right authority. Explain technical issues and ensure that "bad news" is communicated freely between levels.
- Make sure transformation work doesn't hinder business as usual. Excessive daily difficulties can build resentment and resistance.
- Project firm and deliberate intentions. Ultimately, you may need to stand tall in the face of adversity, but with a clear shared understanding of the business vision, you can ensure delivery.
Transformation is worth it
Change is hard. But it’s essential and worthwhile. Whenever I develop a transformation strategy, I ask myself:
- How does this plan tie in with my organization's vision?
- If it doesn’t tie in, why are we doing it?
If you can answer these questions for yourself, you can answer them to the satisfaction of your organization.
Cultural resistance to change can look like an insurmountable barrier to transformation. But by communicating clearly and embracing coherent change, you can achieve smooth delivery. Your organization will gain time to innovate which, in turn, fosters competitive advantage and moves you closer to your business vision.
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