The Essence of Transformation


In one of my last blog articles, I wrote about the burnout phenomenon of organizations. Senior management launches too many projects at the same time and wonders at the end why so many fail. Rose Hollister and Michael D. Watkins recently wrote an interesting article in the Harvard Business Review (HBR, Sept.-Oct. 2018; pp. 65-71). In “Too Many Projects”, they got to the bottom of the problem: The impact-related blindness. Many organizations lack mechanisms to identify, measure, and manage the demands that initiatives place on the managers and employees who are expected to do the work.


In a transformation process, we can often see the same effect because the best top management launches a couple of initiatives in order to implement the new strategy. The management team members themselves are so committed–partly overcommitted–to the new strategic direction that they lose the foundation of reality: The daily business which has to be managed by the organization as well. Hollister and Watkins infer from this observation that “Instead of moderating the demands of the job, their bosses expected them to prioritize and juggle”. In the best case, senior managers are taking the lead and are trying to prioritize the various initiatives. They do that for their own group initiatives–thus, for those for which they are accountable. This prioritization is then often made with a limited view of the other initiatives and they do not understand the interdependences of the related functions. At the end, they blame the employees that they were not able to fully appreciate and implement their ideas of transformation. What could be the way out of this problem?


Without any doubt, we have too many projects in our organizations. Projects are often the means to an end by implementing new strategies. In this transformation process, we completely forget that not every initiative has to be a project. The line organization can catch up to ideas as well and can embed these transformation ideas very quickly in their daily operations. Once we identify an initiative as a project, we have to be more disciplined about setting goals, limits and conditions. From the very beginning, senior management must be aware of the conditions for stopping a project. “Organizations can create a pile of promises to fulfill–and projects that just won’t die”. All of us can reconsider how many projects were stopped in our organizations in the last 3-5 years. Do we–as managers–even talk about the need to reduce the numbers of projects in our organizations? And if we launch a new project, do we discuss the interdependency of the new initiatives in our organizations to our culture and to the relationships with our customers?


Some years ago, I was part of a reconstruction project led by a management consulting firm (which is among the top 5 consulting firms). The aim of the exercise was to cut costs and quickly an analysis was conducted. On paper, it was very easy to draw up the business plans and to illustrate where costs could be cut. Ultimately, they overstressed the organization by cutting people without cutting the related workload. The organization came into a burnout stage from which they could hardly recover over the following years. I would not say that the initial target of optimizing the organizational structure was wrong. Again and again, it is a must to focus on the efficient performance of an organization. The question is how this is best done. By aiming to lower the investment costs, senior management needs to encourage transparent conversation across functions about work volumes, initiatives’ demands and resources. If they are not having this discussion, the people in the organization cannot understand the need and would probably see the initiatives as being unfair.


In the HBR article, Marina Davis from CBIZ said: “We look at each initiative through two lenses: One, does it have a positive impact on the business? And two, does it have a positive impact on the culture?” I believe that this two-dimensional view is very important followed by choosing what we will and will not take on at the time. From many studies, we know that we–as human beings–are not able to work well in a multi-tasking environment (see e.g. Daniel Goldman). Agile organizations are successful as long as they stick to these agile principles (e.g. dedicated team, etc.) because they keep their focus on one task. And, as soon as we launch a new strategy, we completely forget all these findings from the transformation process and we try to do everything at the same time.


Maybe we should remember that “Rome was not built in a day” so let’s get a true count of the current initiatives across the enterprise, establish the priorities and communicate all of them to our people. The best way to avoid initiative overload is to not allow it to happen in the first place. Steve Jobs said once that “Organizations are at a great advantage when they learn how to say no”. Let’s utilize this advantage during our transformation processes and we will reach the goal faster than we would have expected.

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