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.

The definition of 'incremental change' is 'a small adjustment made toward an end result. In a business environment, making an incremental change to the way that things are done typically does not significantly threaten existing power structures or alter current methods,' (source: www.businessdictionary.com).

The definition of 'transformational change' is 'a shift in the business culture of an organization resulting from a change in the underlying strategy and processes that the organization has used in the past. A transformational change is designed to be organization-wide and is enacted over a period of time.' (source: www.businessdictionary.com).

As stated by www.changeleadersnetwork.com, 'in transformation, what you are attempting to create is radically different than your current state of operation and your outcomes are often unclear when you begin. It is messy, often chaotic, and has serious human impact. Therefore, numerous course corrections are required as you discover where you need to go and how to get there. This process is nonlinear and full of surprises. Plus, the psychological and cultural dynamics of transformation increase its messiness. Most major change is transformational, which impacts people far more deeply, often emotionally, touching into their own belief and value systems. In transformation, fundamental ways of being, relating to others, and operating need to radically 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