Part I: Triggering change is more than playing leap-frog across transformation ‘burning platforms’

This article is part of a four-part series on large scale transformation including business performance, integrated change, stakeholder management and communication which is based on a Transformation Workshop delivered at Shared Services & Outsourcing week (Sydney 2017) by Dhugal Ford and Amy Poynton.


Transformation. A common term, but one that stirs up a wide set of responses among leaders, managers and teams. Is the typical approach, to simply creating a “burning platform” for change, enough to trigger the right level of buy-in from those who will make or break a transformation? In our experience, absolutely not.

A good starting point is to imagine a room full of c-suite executives who are charged with delivering a global transformation. The first thing to acknowledge is that they get it. They know the business can’t be successful operating the way they are today and they can see an eye-watering cost reduction target required in a (perceived) unrealistic timeframe. There are consistent nods around the table and violent agreement that something needs to be done. Arguably, this is the ‘burning platform’ of change, however the truth is that this group of executives will have different levels of know-how of what transformation really means. Some will have been through something similar before (experiencing varying degrees of success), while others have not. If the discussion stops at the high-level reason for change, then there is a missed opportunity to dig into the different degrees of experience, interest ,willingness to learn and ability to lead the complex program of work. So, what are the risks in this scenario? Many. Primarily, there is a high risk of leaping too quickly before the leaders really understand the change.

This scenario illustrates an executive group that have voiced their sponsorship, entrusted a team to deliver the agenda and, for once, are in complete agreement on the imperative to change. But, they don’t know where to start so they will remain paralysed in the present. The result is an executive team that quickly delegates to others which, over time, will make transformation a distraction rather than an imperative. Sound familiar?

Our experience tells us that, whilst a burning platform exists, gaining deep sponsorship and engagement from leaders happens when there is a reasonable sketch of the future that incorporates three key aspects:

1.      Clear decision-making;

2.      Fact based business case; and

3.      Guiding Design Principles.

Clear Decision-making:

In the opening, we touched on the how important it is for transformation programs to have active leadership involvement and sponsorship which leads to decision-making. While transformation will be guided by existing business delegation and decision-right, there can be tendency to lean on ‘business as usual’ governance which is not geared-up for transformation. If not managed appropriately, what is potentially a sound governance approach can backfire. For example, without clear definition of transformation decision rights, then the leader’s involvement may be interpreted as onerous and even overwhelming.  Transformation brings a unique opportunity to work across business units including making joint-decision on large-scale changes like technology platforms, services support etc. This means cross-functional decision-making forums are required to drive transformational change. Unaddressed, decision making, particularly the complexity of involving additional stakeholders, can significantly increase the risk of project outcomes and likely schedule slippage.

Transformation programs need structured and deliberate involvement in decision making, with clear decision rights for aspects of design and implementation. This will establish the principles of future state governance and create the opportunity to reinforce existing governance protocols (which may have been neglected or overruled by custom and practice). This buy-in and decision-support has longer term gains, particularly when there is resistance to the changes being introduced across the business. Leaders that were actively engaged in decision-making can become the strongest allies to help to push past the inevitable resistance that will spark up throughout the life of the program.

A final point on clear decision-making is how best to understand and address the individual preferences of decision makers, in order to improve the likelihood of being able to actually have decisions taken in a timely manner.  In a recent case, on a large scale global transformation program, each senior stakeholder had a nominated representative working in a change lead role in the program team.  These change leads played a valuable role in positioning information for feedback with senior stakeholders ahead of decision making forums, so that when it was time for stakeholder to come together and actually take a decision, there were few surprises. This approach did require significant effort, but the value of being able to have decisions taken in a timely manner was of far greater to the program than the effort required to co-ordinate. As important though, was the capturing of these decisions taken in a log, anchoring the decisions made and allowing progress. This ensuring that all of the effort in ensuring decisions were taken was not subsequently lost during periods of change resistance.

Fact-based Business Case

Key to getting stakeholders to let go of the present is to create a compelling picture of the future. The challenge is to create a sketch that tells the story without filling in all the colour and detail. Yet, our stakeholders’ inevitability want a level of detail to better understand the change (or as way of change avoidance, but more on that at another time).

Building a defendable business case is challenging but it does not necessarily mean that details to satisfy a vast set of stakeholder interests is required at this stage. Starting with a business case that includes facts from internal and external sources, realistic assumptions and agreed value drivers means that it is possible to build a good enough picture that makes meaning of the future.

Don’t miss the opportunity to engage your leaders throughout the entire process of building, refining and finalising the business case. All too often, we don’t talk to our leaders through the process, because we want it to be ‘ready’. Accept that it is never going to be perfect. Instead, adopt an agile mind-set by progressing the business case development as an approach to seek feedback throughout the process.

Creating early momentum also allows for early change interventions to set the tone of the transformation – being creative and unashamed of building awareness, even when full clarity hasn’t been established.

Guiding Design Principles

It’s not unusual to a set of high level principles at the start of a program of work, which act as the stepping stone to detailed design activities. All too often, those principles then remain static in print, collecting dust and never to be glanced at again. The thing is though, if these principles help us to be clear on what is agreed, particularly what aspects are confirmed and ‘non-negotiable’, then it allows the focus for discussion on the negotiable aspects, or variations, that will ultimately provide more clarity on the future state.

We can only navigate the unknown or variations if we actively use the principles as a reference point so we know where we are starting, when transformation is finished and ready for transition to the business. Along the way, it allows for the recognition of progress against design milestones. Being able to acknowledge what is working also helps to balance out the uncertainty and “hiccups” that inevitably are experienced through a complex transformation.

When leaders agree a burning platform for change, then it is tempting to leap. It is a burning platform, after all. While building momentum is good, it also needs more than a high-level agreement to make a complex program of work really move forward. Early development of a solid fact-based business case, understanding critical design principles and agreeing ways of making decisions will generate immediate buy-in and the long-term ways of working that will make the transformation program successful. 

Dhugal Ford is a Director at The Terrace Initiative, with over 15 years experience working within a global business. He now enjoys working as part of an amazing team, with deep expertise and a sense of fun, delivering lasting and transformation change with predictability and speed for his clients.

 Amy Poynton is an advisor and board member with over 20 years experience in business improvement and transformation. She currently splits her time between board commitments, client engagements, mentoring, writing and speaking.


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