Why Organisational Transformations Underachieve

We coach, develop and work alongside leaders and teams to shift ideas on leadership and provide the skills and tools needed to grow teams.


You’re just experiencing an organisational transformation. What’s ahead?

In the better and forward-looking organisations, when large-scale and even medium-scale change is needed, a significant amount of thinking, time and money is put into planning.

This is critical of course, as transformational change is a complex and high-risk undertaking and without the necessary planning and effort, it would take years to occur, if at all.

This planning involves new operating models invented and outlined in detail, new technology-based systems evaluated, chosen, customised and rolled out that drive new ways of working, new organisational structures designed and populated for optimum work flows and increased customer focus, new culture-change initiatives and behaviours outlined and promoted, and ultimately new people (leaders and team members) sourced, selected and then combined into new new teams.

The ‘budget for change’ is understandably very front-loaded.

And then the change day cometh. ‘D-Day’. It’s what everyone has been doing all that planning for. And now the key decision-makers and the planners responsible for change can take a bit of a back seat, as their hard work is mostly complete and the change implementation is now in the hands of the people; the leaders of new teams and the teams themselves. The prevailing message now is:

‘Go forth new leaders to implement the change with your people and deliver the benefits’

This is a typical scenario that we see play out over and over again. And the chaos, confusion, stress and performance drop it causes is, in our view, totally underestimated.

This is because, unfortunately, the real change is still to come. The burden of change implementation falls on the new teams and their leaders who have far too much to contend with.

We see organisation after organisation overlook the huge responsibility and the burden of stress they load on their leaders and their teams to execute wholesale change, often with little-to-no after D-Day support.

‘Make it real – tell me a story’

A new Managing Director was appointed to XYZ Insurance following poor revenue and profit results, a falling customer base and poor customer feedback. He undertook a review of the organisation’s operating model and decided to fundamentally change the model and structure in an effort to turn the business around.

The organisation was product-centred and siloed. Each product group had a GM, product design, product manufacturing team and sales team. The MD realised this was an inefficient use of resource and resulted in duplication of capability and effort across the organisation. In addition, there was no unifying customer-centric culture, rather a focus on individual products and their performance. There was also competition between product lines and GMs and a lack of resource sharing. 

The new operating model was aligned to a front office – middle office – back office model and did away with the product line silos. Front office included call centres, distribution and marketing, middle office included product manufacturing and operations, and back office included all the support and corporate functions.

The change process was complex. Most SLT roles were disestablished and the GMs had to reapply for roles. This was disruptive for the organisation and disconcerting for staff who knew that change at the top meant change for everyone. After this change process had run its course and new GMs appointed, they in turn restructured their teams. Not only was the structure different, but roles became more generic and not product specific. There were efficiency gains, and not everyone secured a role in the new structure.

Once all staff were appointed and the change process concluded, new managers of the new functions got on with business and meeting their new goals and targets. Business didn’t improve as quickly as the new MD Had hoped, and after an expensive review by a trusted consultancy, these are some of the issues reported by leaders and staff: ; leaders reported that they were not clear on the MD’s vision for the new organisation; leaders knew that they needed to build new capability within their teams but did not have the support or resources to do this; staff did not feel that they fully understood their new roles and were not clear on their performance targets; staff reported duplication of roles and confusion about workflow and processes; staff did not feel that they had enough opportunity to get to know their new colleagues and understand how they worked together; teams had not been fully relocated and some were dispersed in the building and in some cases in different buildings.

The MD appointed a change manager who developed a plan to remediate these issues and put in place an organisational development plan which included vision and values work, a new leadership development strategy, staff workshops to clarify roles and performance expectations and a team building programme that all teams participated in. Performance indicators, including staff feedback, improved in the months following.

Within 12 months the organisation’s results had improved to levels expected by the parent company and it is evident that the operating model is working. What was missing in the change process was an effective transition and organisational development plan for the leaders and staff.

We often see teams formed or changed through major change initiatives, take many months and sometimes years, to sort out how to work together to deliver the anticipated benefits from the change. And the results are often lacklustre.

Taking on new systems, new processes, new people in new roles, role-modelling and encouraging new collaborative and customer-focused behaviours while reporting into new structures and liaising with other new teams is a tough ask for most leaders who feel the pressure of immediate demands and ‘business as usual’ delivery.

Even good leaders run around in a tail-chasing spins, succumbing to putting out fires. Their team members try to cope with challenges by doing whatever seems to work at the time, resorting to old ways of working with people they know, just to get the urgent and critical things done. Leaders are ill-equipped to help adapt their teams to the new conditions quickly enough.

So why aren’t we investing much more of the change budget in supporting leaders and teams for D-DAY plus 1?

Good question.

We are not entirely sure of the answer. And it may be different for different organisations. Perhaps its money. Perhaps it’s the optimism bias; ‘All things will work out great – let’s not worry about it- we have selected good people’. Perhaps it’s just a simple lack of awareness of what is needed for anyone to cope with large-scale change.

What do great organisations do?

They invest at least as much of the change budget in the D-Day plus 1.

What do we mean by this?

Great organisations have a plan to help leaders and their teams through the transition and well into the implementation of change.  And they spend the money and the time to support the leaders and their teams to effective as quickly as possible following the change. And this commitment to support will play out over months and even more than a year.

The value of this post change commitment is that the change has a better chance of succeeding and its benefits realised earlier. And just as importantly for the long term, the people impacted by the change feel more supported and are more engaged in helping drive the change.

What does this support look like?

New teams and new leaders need to work closely together to adapt to all of the new conditions and expectations post D-Day. It requires close collaboration that only comes from coming together to agree the priorities for what is important to focus on first and how they can together get these priorities done.

Organisations need to have, or find expertise to help teams and their leaders come together and work collaboratively to assess what needs to be prioritised and how to execute on this best as a unit.

And if you are the leader of a team that is dealing with recent change?

What we recommend for you to do as a leader who leads a team of leaders or change-affected people:

1. Make time to bring the team together to assess what is really important that they collaborate on. Get them to surface the major concerns, risks and pain points they face and how they can together deal with these.

2. Then build a foundation with the team that they can lift performance from. Things like:

  • Clarity of purpose – What is the team here to provide and who does it serve?
  • Clear objectives – What is the team needing to achieve and by when?
  • Clear priorities – What are most important things to work on now, and when will we need to reprioritise again?
  • Ways of working – How will we operate together? What should be do in our meetings? What information should we share? What expectations do we have of one another? And what are our specific roles and how can these assist the team?
  • Executing core business – What are the key business processes that the team should work closely together on to make as efficient and effective as possible and what it will take to make this happen?

Leaders who invest in taking the time to work through these things with the team will get their team’s support and their engagement in making and driving the required changes. Stress will reduce for everyone and performance will lift.

It’ll make for a happier and more productive work team.

If you are like most leaders and find this is challenging to do on your own, ask your HR team for support as they may have the expertise and skills and were waiting for someone to ask. If not, the HR team often know how to source external specialists who do.

And if you are not the leader of a team?

If you are a team member who knows that to adapt to change successfully, that the team and its leader will need to come together and work collaboratively, we recommend that you:

1. Ask thought-provoking questions like: “What are we trying to achieve as a team?”, or, “What do we need to work together on to get the best results?”, and, “ How can we work together better as a team?” ,or, “ What are our team priorities?”

2. Highlight the importance to your team and your team’s leader to set aside time to address some of these important areas

3. Offer your support to make this happen

4. Take the lead by facilitating team discussions or meetings to explore what needs the most attention.

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