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Feb 12, 2020

Some thoughts on how to not screw-up organisational transformation

Some common ways to screw-up an organisational transformation and how to avoid them.


Alex wrote recently in How to make friends and winfluence people about some common ways to screw-up an organisational transformation.

These include:

  • Treating your service delivery teams as somehow more special than others in your organisation
  • Making transformation a thing that is done to people rather than with them
  • Failing to devote time to transformation — especially hard in organisations that are suffering budgets cuts without corresponding ‘work-to-be-done’ cuts

I’m sure there are lots of other ways to screw things up but that’s a good list to start with.

It’s about a change in ‘demand’
In many organisations the substance of the transformation is creation of radically different services that better serve organisational and end-user needs. I work with organisations that choose to achieve this through the introduction of agile, user-centred methods.

In a transformation like this, the organisation is being asked to deliver different services using different ways of constructing those services. This is a major shake-up that could require new leadership, organisational redesign, different ways of thinking and acting, different skill sets and behaviours, different ways of measuring success etc. This places the organisation and people in it under stress, even when managed well; tension can arise and some people may resist or leave.

For ‘support functions’ — such as HR, Finance, Commercial etc. — the nature and scale of demand placed on them when a transformation of this type begins could be radically different from the nature and scale of demand being placed on them before transformation. (Thanks to Katherine Kirk for introducing me to this way of portraying things).

So what’s to be done?
I wrote earlier that creating a motivating, shared vision is a good tool in building organisational alignment around change. This requires leadership. If you don’t have alignment then transformation will be slow, painful and likely to fail.

As also noted in that article I have found that putting end users first is a good motivating vision for me (and many organisations). In this case, service delivery teams are closest to the end-user and must act as their advocates within the organisation.

If you work in a ‘support function’, people in service delivery teams should be able to articulate their delivery goals and what needs they have of your support function in order for them to best deliver services that meet end-user needs.

If you’re in a service delivery team you need to talk to your colleagues in ‘support functions’ to find out what they do, how they work, what pressures, constraints and incentives they are operating under and how the radical change in demand is affecting them.

The ability of support functions to service this (radically) different demand is affected by their free capacity — and they may already be overwhelmed servicing existing demand — their skills and knowledge of the changes needed, their alignment with the vision and delivery goals and a whole host of other factors such that in some cases they just may be unable to meet any of the new demand or, at the other extreme, they may be able to meet it fully.

If demand can’t be fully met then delivery teams and support functions may be able to figure out a way forward that goes far enough. In this case, referring back to the organisation’s vision can help decide which of several alternative options are best.

Team and higher level leaders have a role to play in understanding where demand is regularly not being met and helping teams working in those areas e.g. by de-prioritising or removing work that doesn’t support the transformation, adding more people to meet increased demand or by investing in capability-building. Again, referring back to the organisation’s vision can help decide which of several alternative options are best.

Taking the time to understand each other and treating each other with respect & kindness as we share a transformation journey should help remove or alleviate some of the common mistakes in organisational transformation.

I welcome your feedback.


Note: I’m not keen on the term ‘support function’ so if anyone has a better term let me know. As I describe in What’s your moonshot? I see people working in supporting roles as essential to delivery and so should be considered part of the delivery team as much as your developers, interaction designers, product owners etc… Thinking like this helps avoid situations where people see themselves as somehow more special than others.
See also: Shearing Layers in Organisational Transformation