The Truth About Transformation

Today, as you know, everybody is talking about transformation. And the buzzwords are out in force. Disruption, innovation, agile transformation, organizational agility, digital transformation… The list goes on and on. What McKinsey calls an “Agile Organization,” Accenture calls a “Living Business” and MIT Sloan calls a “Digital Organization.” Forrester says that “digital transformation” has come to mean so many things, it’s almost meaningless. 

We’ve worked with many clients to help them transform their businesses. And we’ve been recognized by CIOReview as one of the 10 Most Promising Agile Consulting/Services Firms in the US. We’re very proud of that, but we also recognize that agile transformation is just the tip of a larger transformation iceberg. It’s the common starting point toward what most companies want to achieve, which is a full transformation — with a capital “T” — into a high-performing organization that’s agile, lean, and digital. 

Transformation” has been defined as “a thorough or dramatic change in form or appearance.” It implies big, bold, and all-encompassing. It seems daunting, particularly for incumbent companies with traditional, hierarchical organizational structures and old-school cultures. So, as we look forward to a new year full of possibilities for business growth, what do you really need to know about it? Where do you start? 

Transformation is simply about change. 

The word “change” has been defined as “the act or instance of making or becoming different.” It can be big or small, simple or complex. Businesses and leaders like you have been making it happen for decades — changing people, processes, and technology to improve performance, increase revenue, drive growth, and any of a myriad of other valuable business goals. 

Those responsible for enabling or driving change know it can be tough. People resist it. Organizational culture and structure don’t support it. And legacy technology slows it down. Yet, we’re adept at it — familiar with the work it takes to facilitate it gradually, balancing the lofty vision of what people call transformation with the reality that most organizations have to pace themselves, implementing change pragmatically and incrementally. 

Ultimately, changes accumulate to create a larger transformation. Teams adopt and scale agile principles and practices to deliver value more predictably. They analyze and optimize business processes to improve productivity and quality. They modernize legacy solutions and implement new technologies to automate their work and provide new capabilities. And ideally, they continuously improve over time, ultimately transforming into high-performing teams within a high-performing organization. 

It’s important, however, to acknowledge that the need to change and transform never ends. Businesses will always require the ability to respond to new internal and external forces. They will always strive for continuous improvement as the business and technology ecosystem changes. And there will always be new buzzwords to assess. 

The good news? Transformation is achievable. 

While the concept of transformation as “thorough or dramatic” can be daunting, it’s what we do for a living. Yes, the grand visions of transformation from firms like McKinsey and Accenture are valuable. They enlighten us and compel us to consider new ways of doing business. We can see a potential future and contemplate ways to navigate our companies into it. But smart leaders know that moving into that transformed future happens through effective strategy, sound decision-making, and well-executed implementation. It’s hard work that takes time — but it’s achievable. 

They also know that a successful transformation is highly dependent on the ownership and commitment of the people who drive it. 

It requires leadership from the C-suite. Success or failure usually starts at this level. CEOs must lead the shift and establish clear goals. CIOs and CTOs must drive the transformation from a technology perspective, delivering products and infrastructure in new ways. CFOs often have to develop new ways to budget and allocate resources. And HR leaders usually need to manage organizational structure and cultural change. Most importantly, executive teams must work together to communicate a shared vision for the company’s future and an unwavering commitment to its transition. (Download our whitepaper for more details about the C-suite’s role in organizational transformation.) 

It takes strong change leaders. Transformation happens through the coordination of a complex mix of changes to the people, processes, and technology in an organization. To succeed, those leading the implementation must be able to orchestrate these changes by guiding the people involved, developing clear accountability, effectively allocating resources, and managing change and risk. A recent McKinsey report found that this discipline takes practice: Transformation is more successful when led by change leaders who have personally led large change initiatives before. 

It relies on change champions. Change agents within the organization are your best allies during times of change — advocating, inspiring, and heading off resistance. They can come from anywhere in the organization and usually exhibit some common traits: flexibility, creativity, broad knowledge and strong listening skills, among others. Engage these important individuals as early as possible. Empower them to provide leadership and make recommendations. Give them visible, active roles during planning, ensuring their voices are heard and input respected. Tap into their creativity to solve problems and influence culture. 

So, while the word “transformation” implies big, bold, and all-encompassing, don’t be intimidated. Ultimately, it’s simply the culmination of small changes — which we all know how to deliver through effective strategy, sound decision-making, and well-executed implementation. We’ve got this. 

What’s happening in your world? We’ve been sharing our perspective on transformation through a series of articles on Forbes.com, and we’d love to hear your perspective and quote you in one of our future articles. Please contact us if you’re interested, and we’ll set up a time to connect.