Why you must transform to survive and how to survive the transformation

In a world where constant advances in technology and the ubiquity of digital are shaping the economic and social landscape like never before, organisations face an uncertain future in which the only certainty is that they will have to transform in order to succeed and, indeed, survive.

Whatever the sector, whatever the industry, the sheer pace of change is creating exciting opportunities for organisations — and their competitors. Where your competitors are just one big idea away from dominating your market space, being on top of your own game can no longer be the corporate goal. Even being ahead of the game can be an all too fleeting place to be. Instead, changing the rules of the game should be the chosen strategy.

If it’s not you disrupting the market you can bet it will be someone else

If it’s not you disrupting the market you can bet it will be someone else. Take the well documented story of Kodak. Early pioneers themselves of digital camera technology, instead of unleashing the new technology on the world they buried it, amid fears of what it would do to the traditional film market — a market they dominated. Instead, others championed digital and changed the market forever. Kodak got left behind, and the rest is history.

Or how about Borders? Remember them? At its height the retailer had more than 1000 stores and boasted turnover in excess of $3bn. But, crucially, they continued to invest in ‘bricks and mortar’ stores, failing to see that their books and physical media core was shifting rapidly to digital, with eBooks and music downloads the new medium of choice for their customer base. By 2011 they were finished, destroyed by the likes of Amazon and Apple’s iTunes.

Whilst Kodak and Borders are high profile examples of organisations that have failed to transform in the face of diminishing relevance in their marketplace, there are many more that have recognised the need to transform but are making the fundamental mistake of working toward ‘defined transformation’.

Defined Transformation is most likely to stem from decisions often triggered by the need to catch up. “We need to transform our business so we can compete online”, for example, will lead to back foot transformation activity that has a stated endgame — in this example perhaps the creation of an e-commerce platform. If you undertake transformation on the back foot, basing your targets on the creation of capabilities that you cannot do today the suggestion is that once the endgame is achieved you will have successfully transformed.

Transformation needs to be part of the company DNA

But, surely, there can be no end date to transformation. When what is considered relevant is constantly changing, an organisation must constantly change to stay relevant. Transformation needs to be part of the company DNA. It needs to be ‘Business As Usual’. An organisation that does not include Transformation within what it understands as Business As Usual is an organisation that has failed to understand the fundamental that you cannot define transformation; you have to use it to help define you.

There are some incredibly successful examples of organisations that have managed to transform time and time again, to such an extent that it is no longer referred to as transformation. It’s just how they do things. The same Amazon that helped destroy Borders, for example, started out as a book distributor and transformed many times into an electronics retailer, online marketplace, e-book publisher and hardware manufacturer, music download provider, tv and film streamer and content maker, and can now sell you cloud computing. Is it only a matter of time before they disrupt the market again with drone deliveries? What Amazon knows is that if they don’t, someone else will.

Other huge names such as Apple and Google have also absorbed transformation into their core DNA with outstanding success. Their culture embraces, encourages and even demands change. Yet these are technology sector organisations that were born in the digital age. Does that make it easier for them to take such an approach? They are also organisations with almost unlimited budgets to fund innovation. Does that make it easier for them to embrace perpetual transformation? Undoubtedly it helps, but we shouldn’t fall into the trap of thinking that transformation is all about investment in technology.

Yes, technology will often be the carrier of change; the catalyst or trigger, but in order to be truly successful, transformation must be people focused, not technology focused. Technology will eventually be upgraded or superseded– it’s inevitable — but the constant is people. Transformation must be led by people for the benefit of people, namely your customers and your employees, and not by the technology behind it. This is true whether you are a multi-billion dollar tech company or a small manufacturer of novelty umbrellas. In Healthcare, for example, do you think transformation is about the technology or about the difference the transformation can make to patient care?

Transformation must be led by people for the benefit of people, not by the technology behind it

Understanding who should lead your transformation is an important first step to it being successful. Existing leaders and management are likely to understand every layer of their organisation, their place in the market and their industry as a whole. Yet this very knowledge and expertise makes them the least likely to understand the potential for disruption and transformation; so entrenched are they in the status quo. Relying on these existing leaders alone to deliver transformation will result in slowly-delivered minor change, not real transformation realised at pace.

No, you need fresh thinking and a new vision from a transformation leader with the sole focus and accountability for the definition and execution of your transformation plan. But here’s the key — unless your transformation leader is Superman or Harry Potter they will not be able to do it on their own. This is where your existing leaders and managers play their part, assuming the responsibility of change agents, using their reputation across the business to drive advocacy and engagement across the employee base that will ultimately deliver transformation and keep on delivering it.

success will not be measured by the score of the game at the end of play but by how long you are still playing the game

Your transformation success will not be measured by the score of the game at the end of play but by how long you are still playing the game. Get it right and eventually, you’ll be able to say, “Transformation? It’s just how we do things here.”