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What is Transformational Change? Why Is It Hard To Do Well? An Example Framework & Case Study

Not all 'change' is the same. Not all change is created equal.

There is incremental change and then there is the big kahuna - transformational change.

Uh oh!

I have had the pleasure of presenting on the topic of 'transformational change' in a business context on a number of occasions, and I thought it would be valuable to humbly share some thoughts and learnings about change, with a special focus on how to help your people through this process.

Now, what I’m not going to do, is go step by step through the change management process – you can easily google this or read about it in a text book. What I hope will be far more valuable for you, is to share the transformation journey approach that was taken in a Not-for-profit company limited by guarantee ('Company S') operating in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) education and exhibit manufacturing sectors. At the time, I was CEO of this company. I will share a framework as a case study and the learnings encountered.

What I might do first is give you some context regarding 'Company S''s transformation journey. As Simon Sinek would say, “Let’s start with why.” So why was change needed at 'Company S'?

In 2018, 'Company S' turned 30. From the company's humble beginnings, the organisation was established with the mission to increase awareness, interest, capability and participation in STEM.

Their mission is as relevant today as it was 30 years ago – in fact, probably even more important now. Why? Because the future of work is changing and as a global community, we are facing unprecedented new challenges. For example, PwC Australia's research report 'A Smart Move,' shows that 75% of the fastest growing jobs over the next decade will require STEM skills. If 'Company S''s remit is to increase awareness, interest, capability and participation in STEM - then given this changing environment – the company also needed to change – and significantly.

They needed to embed an ability to adapt to industry transformation within the organisation, so that we could better deliver their mission. So that’s some context around 'the why' behind the need for 'Company S''s transformational change program. But let’s move on now to 'the what' – and briefly discuss what the transformation was about so that we can put this all in context.

As the CEO, my job was to not just run 'Company S,' but rather, to transform it - to enable the organisation to reach its full potential, and to work with the government and partners to address future challenges related to the need for a STEM-enabled workforce.

This required bold, radical thought and a new future-focused strategy. They didn’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, because 'Company S' had been very successful and is much loved - but it was acknowledged that change was needed for the future – and it was going to be significant change - transformational change. So the Board, my Executive and I consulted with the community, with the company's partners and with staff to come up with a bold new plan. Let's say we called it the 'New Strategy.'

The 'New Strategy' was to empower all Western Australians (not just children) to be equipped with the 21st century skillset needed for the future. This will involve 'Company S' changing to become more digitally focused in the way it delivered STEM education and awareness.

The 'New Strategy' would involve showcasing the latest STEM technologies and inspiring people with more cutting-edge contemporary STEM content. It involved creating a positive opportunity mindset within the community. And rather than letting our friends in the media take an “if it bleeds, it leads” approach to headlines – the strategy involved 'Company S' highlighting the bright and positive future available for those people who choose a STEM-enabled career. And last but certainly not least, the strategy also involved finding and funding a new 'state of the art' Science Centre for the company.

The new strategy required the business to have new competencies which weren't present at the time. It also required a new structure, new systems, new processes and an entirely new way of working. So therefore, an entirely new operating model was also required to give life to the new strategy.

So while the company's original mission remained the same, the new strategy required a bold and exciting new approach – which included an extensive change program.

Now that we’ve set the scene, we can now move on to “THE change.”… Creating a new strategic direction was the easy part. Comparatively speaking. Almost anyone can craft a new strategy. It’s the implementation of strategy that’s the hard part. This is because strategy implementation usually involves asking human beings to change. And if it’s a bold transformation strategy – that likely means a lot of change.

Most human beings don’t like change.

Change takes us out of our comfort zone and can result in all sorts of interesting behaviours being demonstrated. This is because change often triggers fear in those of us who may feel threatened in some way by the change. For leaders and for individuals, change can be really hard. Especially so, as a leader, if you don’t have a plan to proactively and compassionately support your people through this process.

Alternatively, it can be wildly successful and highly rewarding to unlock the transformation pathway through your people, by coaching and investing in them through this process.

It’s interesting to know that the change process that most people go through, directly correlates to the emotions experienced when humans go through the grieving process.

Change is a very personal and challenging process in a business context. The depth and length of an individual’s path on this change curve is determined by a combination of personal and organisational factors.

For example, they will remain longer in “the valley of despair” depending on their perceptions of the impact of the actual change, in combination with their natural or learned level of resilience, comfort with ambiguity, perceived degree of control over the change, existing stress levels and quality of relationship with their boss.

From an organisational perspective, there are many things we can do to help unlock the transformation pathway through our people. So what was done at 'Company S', considering they had embarked on a nice, shiny and bold transformation strategy?

As mentioned, an entirely new operating model with a new structure was needed, along with new systems, processes and an entirely new way of working. Yes – that was going to be challenging.

We knew WHY it needed to be done, we knew WHAT needed to be done, but as far as the HOW goes, we chose to take a highly collaborative approach to our design process with our people. This helped people to accept that change was coming - and they had the opportunity to shape it.

We researched and took advice about the most effective and contemporary operating models in the market, and learnt from other organisations that were kind enough to share their “war wounds” with us about what worked and what didn’t work.

Recipe for Change

The recipe for the company's‘new way of working,’ involved the adoption of human centred design methodology, which ensured that focus was placed on the customer - ie: 'Company S' became 'customer centric.' 'Company S' also adopted a data driven, agile approach across business areas, with cross-functional teams deployed to address strategic business priorities. So how did we drive the change that was needed?

A new tailored change management process. Firstly, we recruited a dedicated and experienced Change Manager and defined our own change management plan. The change management approach was a combination of the Prosci ADKAR model, augmented with training and communication tailored around various personality types. This helped leaders to personalise their conversations with staff based on their individual personality type preferences. 'Company S' rolled out extensive change leadership training for all leaders and 17 staff who volunteered to be our change champions were trained in change management and change leadership.

It is important to describe to your people what the entire change journey involves, and what it looks like. We found it useful to do this in visual form and with videos. A visual 'change roadmap' with key milestones was created for the entire change journey, which was accompanied by a 'change mascot' (a virtual robot (which staff named Franklin). Franklin got an upgrade at each milestone as progress was made through the change journey. It was a bit of fun – created opportunities for celebration, and it communicated the path to the finish line very effectively.

But one of the most effective things that we did, was to create visual story boards. A visual story board is a summary of what the change means to you in pictures – and then you tell the story verbally. As CEO, I did my own visual story board, and it was videoed and shared with all staff. Feedback from staff confirmed that once they watched this video, they 'got it.'

We ran 'visual storyboard' workshops in each Business Area, with the leader sharing their story board and then their staff would do the same. This was very powerful from a change perspective.

One of the most important things done, was the empowerment of leaders to facilitate the change by assuring them that the CEO and all other leaders had their backs when it came to 'reinforcing the change.' From the Board, through myself as the CEO, to the Executive Leadership Team, and to all leaders throughout the organisation, we all had each other’s backs. We supported one another and our staff through the change process.

This change leadership support is needed because change leadership is hard, - but “the change” is non-negotiable – so sometimes leaders need to have difficult conversations with employees to help people to understand, commit to, accept and embrace ‘the change.’

We also changed our communications approach and adopted a ‘sponsorship cascade style’ in line with this leadership empowerment approach. This was done to purposefully leverage the closeness of the relationship between an employee and their direct leader, and to empower and allow leaders to personalise communications for their staff.

We also empowered staff to design their own position descriptions, within the scope of the design parameters of the new operating model, with their direct supervisors. It required people to really think about what the change was and how they would deliver it in their role. This co-design approach did cause some anxiety with some people, because this freedom also involved a degree of ambiguity. Others loved it.

This required frequent leadership check-in meetings and conversations to ensure that everyone was adhering to the operating model design parameters, schedule and budget. This approach requires that you place a lot of trust in your people – but in my view, was very effective and very powerful for everyone involved.

One last thing that I would like to share, is the importance of addressing the “What’s in it for me?” Or “Why should I care?” This needs to occur on a personal level, and at the beginning of the change process – this is part of the “WHY are we doing this” and the “WHY this change is occurring” conversation. You have to create the DESIRE for people to go on the change journey - and then find every opportunity to celebrate how they are embracing the change.

So I’ve just provided a potted summary of how change was driven change within 'Company S.' They are still on this journey and will be for some time.

Time and time again, change always takes longer than you expect – especially if you are doing it in a careful, compassionate and transparent way. There is no quick path – real lasting change can only be brought about by helping your people to understand, commit to, accept and embrace ‘the change.’ This is the only way to unlock your transformation journey through your people.

I hope that I have been able to share something of value with you. Good luck to you and your team on your transformation journey. Please don't hesitate to contact us at if we can help you in any way. :-)


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