Three Ways To Set The Right Pace For Organizational Transformation

On April 16, 2018, Desiree “Desi” Linden became the first U.S. woman to win the Boston Marathon in 33 years. Marathons are obviously hard, but this was one for the books, with a temperature of 40 degrees, a wind chill of 29 and winds gusting to 30 miles per hour. Linden’s winning time — 2 hours, 39 minutes and 54 seconds — was about 18 minutes slower than that of last year’s women’s winner.

In an interview, Linden revealed she was having a bad day. Early on in the race, she told her teammate, Shalane Flanagan, she thought she wouldn’t even finish. She offered to block the wind for others, even stopping to wait when Flanagan took an unexpected bathroom break an hour after the start. In the end, however, she won easily, thanks to pacing and persistence, saying, “The racing doesn’t start really happening until six miles to go.”

Like marathons, large transformation efforts also demand pacing and persistence. Unlike marathons, however, there is no finish line. The changes that drive the need for businesses to transform are many, including market competition, regulatory shifts and technology advancements, to name just a few. And they never end. According to a Harvey Nash and KPMG CIO survey, “Leaders are telling us that change has reached unprecedented levels, and increasingly, it is coming from unexpected corners.”

Also, like marathons, transformations are tough on the people involved in them. While there will always be early adopters, most people resist change. They don’t want to modify their familiar processes or learn how to use new tools. Many fear their jobs will be put in jeopardy. Like a strong headwind, this resistance slows transformation progress and heightens the risk of outright failure. McKinsey estimates that 70% of change programs don’t achieve their goals, due in large part to employee resistance.

A key to success is finding the right pace for your organization. No company can simply flip a switch and expect things to go well. Move too fast, and you risk the backlash of resistance and increased chances for costly mistakes. Move too slow, and people get frustrated, individual growth is hindered and companies become irrelevant.

Every business has an appropriate rate of change it can absorb, enabling progress without doing serious harm to the company or its employees. It’s often slower than leaders would like, but we have to deal with that reality. How do you find the right pace in your unique situation? Here are three proven best practices:

1. Make It Personal

This may seem obvious, yet many companies get so caught up in the pressures of making progress and meeting deadlines that they fail to keep the people that make the business run front and center. Finding your company’s tolerance for change is critical and it’s personal. The goal is to get everyone moving forward together to a similar beat and to keep that pace over time. This depends on really knowing your people — what motivates them, what they fear and how they work with one another.

To keep employee needs and behaviors highly visible, incorporate organizational change management best practices into your transformation planning processes. Assess the company culture early, and work with your HR department to understand how change will be welcomed or resisted. Initiate collaborative conversations with people at all levels of the business to gain a broad perspective of the employee ecosystem. Keep your door open and your ear to the ground as you implement change. And celebrate wins, even the small ones: There’s not one big finish line — there are many, and each is important to long-term victory.

2. Build, Measure, Learn

As a core component of the Lean Startup methodology, the build-measure-learn feedback loop involves defining the problem you need to solve and developing a minimum viable product (MVP) so you can measure and learn as quickly as possible. This approach can also help you better understand your organization’s ability to absorb change.

Design change experiments. Then make a small change and assess its impact. Get direct feedback from the people whose work is affected by those small changes before you begin making big ones. Not only does this help you find your pace, but it gives employees a sense of ownership in the transformation process. One of our clients is using this technique as they modernize their highly manual, people-intensive ordering processes. By working with the teams to test small process changes and listening to their input, they are learning how fast they can go and building employee engagement at the same time.

3. Diversify Your Steering Committee

Steering committees are usually composed of like-minded leaders. Smoothly moving an organization through a significant change, however, requires a broader perspective. Bring together a group of diverse change agents, with representation from across the organization. The more diversity, the better, including both early adopters and laggards. We’ve seen this in action and have found that those in the middle temper the group and facilitate conversations as the team negotiates the appropriate rate of change. Having a broad spectrum of personalities and preferences working together in a group designed to help the organization transform gives the initiative credibility and helps you make progress without losing sight of your employees’ needs.

Find Your Pace

How hard should you push your organization? What is too fast and too slow? In the race to transform, set a steady pace that fits your business, monitor its effectiveness and adjust as needed. Persist in the face of inclement weather, which will inevitably come. And always look out for your teammates, helping them cross their own finish lines. That’s what winners do.