Transformation is slow, but how slow and how can we accelerate it?
How long does it take to transform?
This candid question came up last week in a conversation group with executives and transformation practitioners that I am running with my colleague Sandra. The conversation that followed touched on multiple aspects of the question.
Transformation is a slow process that requires patience and perseverance. Rushing it won’t help. As one of my clients used to say, “you can’t give birth to a baby in one month by getting nine women pregnant”.
Profound and sustainable transformation is about challenging habits, practices or mental models that have sedimented over years or sometimes decades and progressively replacing them with something new and unfamiliar within the context. It takes time to unlearn and re-learn, both as an individual and as a collective. The process is non-linear, often uncomfortable, and never short when aiming for deep and meaningful change. Think of teenage-hood and how long it takes to redefine your sense of self and how you relate to your surroundings and the world.
Different aspects of change
Transforming an organisation usually requires a combination of changes to the organisation’s ‘hard-wiring’ — changes in structure, systems, governance, processes, etc. — and its ‘soft-wiring’ — culture, habits, traditions, postures, symbols, narrative, etc.
The tangible levers can usually be activated reasonably quickly, in a matter of months, while the intangible ones, which are, in my view, even more critical to long-term success, take a lot more time to settle and root.
By structuring the macro-planning around the production of the tangible deliverables and aligning other considerations to fit within the same time frame, you run the risk of forcing new models on a system that isn’t ready to embrace them. The most exciting transformation projects we have delivered took quite the opposite approach: create an experimentation field for people to ‘practice new patterns’ and activate structural changes like governance, people policies, internal processes, etc., once the legitimacy and readiness for change were established. That point in time is further down the line.
You can’t accurately predict the duration of a transformation journey. Some contextual attributes such as risk appetite, mental and operational agility, expected disruption level or external forces’ nature would provide valuable indications about potential timing. Nevertheless, while you can formulate design principles in terms of rhythm and pace and assumptions about speed, the key remains to monitor how and how fast the system embraces the change and to constantly adjust your support mechanisms to best nurture it and let it emerge without brutality.
In an era where progress and outcomes are measured quarterly and often monthly, it is often not audible to claim that a process is slow, non-linear and not entirely predictable. How you deal with that tension is, first and foremost, a question of leadership. The most mature leaders that engage in systemic transformation know they will need to create and hold the space for ‘the new state’ to emerge, and they know that for a period, they will have to protect this space from the sceptics, the cynical and the fearful.
Concretely, how can we affect speed through our design and delivery choices?
Beyond those considerations, we discussed how you can affect the pace of transformation and looked at it through the lens of our Change platform model.
The premise of this model is that change is achieved by creating space for experimentation, with a different authorising environment, where people can work, think and interact differently. Everything about how this is set up and facilitated is deliberate and in service of a transformational intent. Eventually, the critical mass of experiences and insights generated through experimentation creates readiness for change and allows changes to be rolled out and scaled outside the experimental zone and the rest of the organisation or the system. For example, we’ve seen some of those ‘experimental projects’ paving the way for transformations of the procurement function, the performance management system, or even the org chart, once they had evidenced their in-congruence with the transformational intent.
When considering the experimental zone in the early stages of design, there are several decisions to make that will affect the pace of the transformation:
- If you choose to introduce existing project(s) in the experimental zone, the transformation pace will depend on their life cycle. One of my clients — an Australian bank — decided to use their biggest and riskiest core-system replacement project as a ‘trojan horse’ for change; in doing so, they implicitly agree to a 12+ month cycle. Others will choose, for example, to design and test new business models that would go complete cycle within three months.
- Rather than projects, you can choose to start from people and identify a cohort of change agents that will join an experimentation on a part-time or full-time basis. In that case, once the cohort is set up, you can brainstorm some bespoke initiatives, in service of the transformational intent, that you have full latitude to time-box. This approach is chosen by the French Ministry for Environment.
- The scale of your experimentation is also a critical parameter to inform speed. Whether your starting point is people or projects, the bigger your experimental zone, the quicker you will generate the critical mass of experiences and insights that will allow you to scale change. You will inevitably reach tipping points sooner if your cohorts of change agents are more significant or if the portfolio of experimental projects is more extensive.
The initial question that prompted this article — How long does it take to transform? — suggests that transformation is a finite notion and that you can determine a clear endpoint. In reality, transformation is a continuum, and achievements are hard to measure tangibly. Speed and sense of completion are primarily determined by the leadership team’s expectations in terms of depth, sustainability and meaningfulness of change.