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Avoiding Last-In-First-Out: Strategies for ensuring your business transformation sticks

Think of the last time you added a new habit to your life — maybe it was meditation, morning exercise, or a no-email-after-dinner policy. How well did it stand up to stressful periods? How keenly did you stick to it when it wasn’t new? For many people, aspirational change struggles to stick, at least without serious thought devoted to making sure it isn’t dropped.

Business transformation is no different. Unfortunately, designing and deploying aspirational operating models is only part of the job. Systems – particularly large ones with many moving parts — seek homeostasis, and instinctively reject threats to the status quo. Most importantly, last-in-first-out applies; more recent changes are the first to go. This is particularly true in times of instability, or after initial enthusiasm has worn off.

In deploying a transformation, real thought needs to be directed towards how your business plans to make the change stay and be worth the effort. Here are four strategies that should be considered:

  1. Treat the change as a strategic priority — and communicate it internally as such. Get company-wide executive buy in and make sure senior leadership promote it accordingly. It might start, or be tested, only in certain units, but it’s important that executives elsewhere in the business are aware it’s happening, how it progresses, and have a mind for how it will apply to their own operations. This avoids painful relitigation of the value of the transformation when it comes time to scale. It helps circumvent the awkward state where parts of the business are operating in one way, and other parts in another – but their leaders, and most importantly, the workers, don’t know why.

  2. Have a talent strategy in place. New operating models require new human resources models to succeed. In an agile and digital-first context, team structures and individual accountabilities are very different — what’s required of individual operators changes, and traditional career paths may no longer apply. This mystery is perfect for creating disengagement and talent bleed, as well as recruitment struggles. What intrinsic skills will employees need in your new way of working? How will talent transitions to your new model be managed? What do talent development pathways look like in your new business? Existing human resource departments are unlikely to have all the answers. Seeking clarity here — both for yourself and the talent themselves — is critical.

  3. Ensure there is a defined and well-known roadmap of change. Particularly if transforming into new ways of working, such as agile, it makes sense to experiment in constrained environments before moving wider. It’s important to think through the desired pace and strategy of scaling — which business units make the most sense, in which order, to deploy the change? Define this roadmap, including stage-gates with specific criteria of success. Make this roadmap, criteria for success, and contingencies public — people need to know what’s coming, when.

  4. Build a cultural backbone consistent with the change. New ways of working inevitably fail when paired with old cultural contexts. Agile for example, relies heavily on empowered, cross-functional teams and rapid, fearless experimentation. This fails unless senior leadership is comfortable delegating a serious amount of decision making power to operating teams. It also fails unless leadership make an effort to celebrate experimentation and the process of failing fast. Another example: in customer-centric, digital-first transformations, leadership must drive cultural change so the business thinks in terms of end-to-end customer journeys, rather than internal tasks. Know the cultural backbone required for the new operating model and make delivering that the core task of leadership.

Operating model transformations are painful, expensive ordeals, but are worth the effort. However, without a defined strategy for ensuring the change sticks, they’re likely to be wastes. Your goal is change without “spooking the horses” — creating an environment of transparency, so all who are affected know exactly what to expect, and feel minimal discomfort.

Jing Seth

Marketing engineering and advanced analytics

A quantitative analyst who also has deep experience in taking complex propositions to market, Jing has sold to high-tech start-ups, national defense agencies and Fortune100 corporates. He has codified winning processes, and designed and led specialist sales teams. In his most recent role he rebuilt the growth engine from scratch and closed deals that ended a 12-month sales drought for the company.

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