The Two Ingredients for Winning at Transformation
Connect with people. Tell a story.
I work with countless organizations going through X Transformation (where X = digital, functional (HR, Supply Chain, Finance), customer experience, etc. Awesome! I freaking love transformation. I personally try to do one every few years! (Fun fact: we are physically wired for this as our cell structure literally rejuvenates every seven to ten years. I also had a marriage counselor once tell me that humans generally self-evolve about every 7–10 years, which was always when she saw couples in therapy. Causation or correlation? I digress...)
So when I talk to clients about their transformations, the logical question I ask is — “why are you doing this (hard) thing?” Because for the amount of time, effort and energy, let alone money, there’s gotta be an obvious prize, right?
But I’ll be damned if I can get an answer.
And we’re not talking mom-and-pop organizations. We’re are talking about companies that are placing million and billion-dollar bets — undertaking multi-year global enterprise transformations, and they don’t know why. I had one client sheepishly tell me “Well, we’d say it’s for customer experience.”
These people are smart, successful leaders in recognizable companies.
And yet, I am continuously shocked by how many people I am encountering who lack vision and a reason. And, while that may sound like a criticism, it truly is not. Whenever I see these patterns, I am curious. How could something so fundamental, so important to success be so widely overlooked and ignored? I thought everyone knew that you Start with Why.
The bigger confusion for me, as a person who thinks about and gets paid to help humans change behavior, is how leaders think they can bring anyone along on a transformation journey without a really compelling reason or purpose. Sadly, cost takeout and process improvement or organizational efficiency are not enough to get people to change their habits, because those are outcomes that are not clearly tied to an individual’s daily existence. In other words, they are business benefits of transformation (when achieved) but they are not meaningful enough to drive actual shifts in mindset or motivation to build new habits and leave the comfort of the current state, and unfortunately, all change starts at the individual level.
Fundamentally, if you can’t see it or describe it, then how the hell is anyone else going to be able to follow along? And why on earth would they change any of their own behaviors to get there?
People need a meaningful reason to change that connects with something fundamental about things they care about. Every transformation story has to have a moment of emotional impact — facts are not enough.
There are two primary ingredients for discussing your vision in a way that will land with your employees:
1. Empathy. You need to study those that you want to bring along your transformation journey. By study, I mean talk to them and observe them and model them to the point that you understand them so well you can finish their sentences. It does not matter what your business wants to achieve if you can’t tie it to what people actually care about, and maybe as importantly, until you can address what people are most afraid of losing in a transformation process. Here’s an example: To prepare for a feature film, Disney animators spend months immersing themselves in the environments and scenarios in which the films they design will take place. For Frozen 2, they went skydiving to understand how wind moves for the character “Gale” and they traveled to Norway to stand on an iceberg so they would know what Elsa should look like as she stared out over an iceberg. This is a fundamental secret sauce for how they are able to create believable and meaningful connections with their audience — then they add hot technology and other bells and whistles on top of that. Fundamentally, if you are not willing to understand the experiences and the perspective of the people you want to ask to change, you will not succeed. You gotta see the iceberg from their vantage point.
2. Storytelling. Once you understand their vantage point, everything you communicate about the upcoming transformation needs to tell the story from that perspective — with your employees as the central characters of a hero’s journey. Non-tech people don’t care what the technology is capable of, they care how it will make their lives easier. Most employees don’t care about efficiency and cost takeout — they care about how they can stop doing stupid activities and do their own job security and career progression.
So, please do transform. Go crazy and rewrite your organizations’ operating models and shape shift into new ways of working — just remember that no matter the transformation category, you will only succeed with the empathy and storytelling it takes to bring people in your organization along with you. See you in 7–10 years.