Can "Experience" Actually Derail Your Transformation Efforts?

Quite often when organizations are undergoing change, there is a tendency to solicit the ideas and opinions of those with the most experience. There is a confidence and a comfort we feel in gaining insight and direction from those who have spent years or even decades in a given industry, company or organization. On the surface this makes a great deal of sense. However, is it possible that relying too heavily on those with "experience" can actually hinder or derail your transformation efforts?

The truth about experience is, it is most effective if the environment in which you operate hasn't substantially changed! However, if new technologies are introduced, new distribution channels developed, or non-traditional competitors enter the marketplace, the value of previous experience is diminished. In fact, in the book, "Think Again: Why Good Leaders Make Bad Decisions" (Harvard Business Press) the authors argue that one of the leading factors as to why smart leaders make bad decisions is relying on "Misleading Experiences." Misleading experiences are those memories of past actions that seem to be comparable and/or relevant to the current situation, but which can subconsciously cause us to overlook and/or undervalue differentiating factors.

When leading change and transformation it is essential to have those with "relevant" experience at the table. However, it is equally necessary to have others with diverse ideas and insights involved. Histories is littered with companies that in the face of changing trends and challenging headwinds relied too heavily on those with experience, and are no longer in business. Did Blockbuster benefit from its video distribution experience? Did Border's Books benefit from it experience in selling books? How did Circuit City's experience in selling electronics help it from avoiding bankruptcy? Arguably, it was important that each organization have individuals with industry expertise involved in leading change. However, they could have benefited more by understanding:

  1. What are the "differentiating factors" that we need to better understand?
  2. How has, or can technological innovation help us to create sustainable value?
  3. How has customer behavior and buying habits changed?
  4. Who are the successful new entrants, and what can we learn from them?

Today, there are several industries and organizations that are faced with major decisions regarding their future:

  • Will our customers continue to purchase our products and services in the same manner, or will they want new, customer-friendly delivery models?
  • Will changes in technology make our platform and go-to-market strategy non-competitive or obsolete?
  • Are there two kids in a garage somewhere building a new software application with features and functions that we've not even imagined?

While none of these industries or organizations have a crystal ball to help create and implement an effective transformation plan, if they are smart, in the addition of asking the four questions listed above, they will:

  • Conduct an analytical review of the facts from multiple data points.
  • Encourage healthy debate of the facts and the implications.
  • Identify how past experiences can both help and hinder success.
  • Don't be afraid to engage others who may lack "industry" knowledge, but who can provide unique insights and perspectives, based on their diverse background.

Yes, experience matters in leading change and transformation, but it’s wise not to rely on past experience alone. It needs to be viewed through the lenses of both the reality of the present, and the promise and opportunity of the future.

Four Questions That Will Help Determine An Organizations Readiness for Change!

Previously I shared that for any transformation effort to be effective, you must first have an appreciation that all changed efforts start with understanding human nature (see “Managing Change Starts with Understanding Human Nature”); and, prior to undertaking any strategic change or transformation effort, organizations should undertake a Readiness Assessment to gauge if they are really ready for change (see “Is Your Organization Really Ready to Change?”).

As part of this assessment, four key questions must be asked, answered and addressed:

1. Do Leaders at every level have a common vision of the change to come?

For any change initiative to have even the slightest chance to succeed, leaders at every level of the organization need to be 100% clear and aligned on two critical factors:

- Is there a common understanding of the change to come from an organizational perspective?

- Is everyone clear on their role in leading the change, AND, the interdependencies’ and impact their individual role has to the overall success of the organization?

During any change or transformation effort there can only be ONE vision of what the future state will be! There is only room for one version of the truth, one message that gets communicated, and most importantly, one understanding of what success looks like. Too often in many organizations, senior leaders communicate one vision of the future, however, those beneath them take liberties to editorialize that vision with their own biases and the end message is confusing and convoluted to the rank and file.

Additionally, every leader at every level must be clear of the impact and interdependency their ability to execute has on the whole organization and the success of the change effort. When leaders lose sight of, or don’t understand these impacts, they can unwittingly contribute to what appears to be the success of their function or department, but at the expense of the success of the overall organization.

2. Will the organization’s culture support or resist the change?

Just as every country, social, and ethnic group has unique cultures, likewise, every industry, organization, and even departments within an organization can have its’ own unique culture.  The key is determining in advance how “change adverse” or resistant is the culture? Is the culture one that suffers from W.A.D.I.T.W. (We’ve Always Done It This Way)? Or worse yet, suffer from a bad case of B.W.A.D. (this change may be good for other departments “But We Are Different”)?

To effectively drive change, before the first step is implemented, leaders must engage and understand the culture and how the change will be received.

3. What (and Who) do we anticipate will be the main resistors to change?

Knowing that by nature humans are change adverse, it should be assumed going in that there will be some resistance. The key is in anticipating “what” aspects of the transformation initiative will receive the most resistance, and, “who” are the key influencers within the organizations who might be the most focal resistors?
Every organization has certain “sacred cows,” those written or unwritten rules, processes, or expectations that people have come to enjoy. For decades IBM had a policy (unwritten if I recall) of “full employment.” The promise was, as long as you were a productive worker who added value, there would always be a role for you within the organization. You wouldn’t be downsized or laid off, as long as you performed.

However, in the early to mid 90’s under former CEO Lou Gerstner, IBM was forced to abandon this policy as market conditions and the competitive landscape changed. While ultimately successful in transforming IBM from a hardware/software manufacturer to a service provider, it was a shock to the culture when full employment came to an end.

4. How can we mitigate resistance to change?

In my experience, resistance to change can be mitigated by:

- Having a concise, compelling argument as to “Why” the organization must change to maintain it’s competitive edge, to drive growth or whatever the motivation is. Everyone must be crystal clear as to why, what will happen if we don’t, and the possible impact on the workforce if the status quo remains.

- Engaging workers from ALL levels of the organization in the planning process (this can include those key influencers who might not be supportive) to ensure input is received from top to bottom.

- Consider a phased or piloted implementation plan, allowing for mid-course corrections as new information is gained and unforeseen challenges are better understood.

- Communicate consistently and periodically on the status of the change initiative. In the absence of information, people will often make up their own reality of how things are going, which is almost always worse than reality.

Is Your Organization Really “Ready” to Change?

After careful analysis and consideration, your organization has determined that in order to “take it to the next level”, there needs to be a change in strategy. The leadership team has done their SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats). They’ve uncovered a “Blue Ocean” that will deliver exponential growth, and have used Six Sigma methodology to optimize operational processes.  Lastly, the Board of Directors has endorsed the new strategy and the organization is poised to implement the new Transformation (more sophisticated sounding than “Change”) initiative! Or is the organization really ready for change?

In full transparency, I’ve been there. I’ve led change and transformation initiatives for over thirty years in industries as diverse as Grocery Retail, Business Process Outsourcing and Wireless Technology. With the best of intentions and the security blanket of outside consultants, Gant charts and market intelligence, I’ve witnessed how even the best laid plans can still end up with less than optimal results! And in every case, one critical question was never fully explored: “Is the organization Ready for change”?

By “Ready” I am not referring to being properly staffed, fully funded or properly organized for the change. Rather, prior to embarking on the change or transformation initiative is there alignment on the vision, support from the culture, an understanding of the “resistors” and are plans in place to mitigate resistance?

I would suggest that prior to undertaking any strategic change or transformation effort, that organizations undertake a Readiness Assessment. As part of this assessment, four key questions must be asked, answered and addressed:

  • Do Leaders at every level have a common vision of the change to come?
  • Will the organization’s culture support or resist the change?
  • What do we anticipate the will be the main resistors to change?
  • How can we mitigate resistance to change?

Readiness for change depends more on assessing and addressing these issues, than the crafting the best transformation plan. In future discussions we will look at each of these questions individually.