Including a transformation track in projects and initiatives helps surface org-level tensions that are blocking the org from adapting and progressing. The tensions offer an opportunity to the leadership team to resolve them and make real change possible.
The leaders of an organisation realise the need to transform. They announce to the staff that there will be new projects underway that will embrace new technologies to improve operational efficiencies and customer experience. The first projects are identified.
The new projects are underway. There is a lot of excitement in the air. The teams are learning new approaches like design thinking and are trying new methods such as user testing.
One day, the project team gets a notice from the Audit Office that their work will be audited. The Auditor sends them a template to explain their investments and attach all specified deliverables. If a deliverable is not attached, they need to explain why. The project team lead now has to explain why user interviews and usability testing was done and to justify the costs incurred and more importantly why other regular activities were NOT performed.
Most likely the team will spend their precious time trying to shoehorn their work to meet the audit requirements. They will also update their resumes. All this while the leadership is clueless as to what is happening at the ground-level and wondering why projects aren’t producing results.
What could have prevented this fail? What if the situation unfolded like the following:
In the remainder of this article, we will describe the transformation track in detail.
A transformation is an organisational change for the better. Today, thanks to digital technologies we have many ways to be better and hence the rise of ‘digital transformation’. If we don’t take advantage of these opportunities then we lose on three fronts:
An organisation is a human endeavour designed to deliver on a purpose. The organisation requires work to be done, a workforce to do it and a place to carry it out. With the growing influence of digital technologies all the three layers of the organisation—work, workforce and the workplace (3Ws)—are under stress.
Let’s take an example. Consider the work of building inspection surveys to identify flaws, wear-and-tear and other safety breaches.
Notice that in a transformation all the three—work, workforce and workplace—had to shift to accommodate a better way. Imagine if you did not one, but hundreds of such projects that welcomed better ways of doing things in line with the transformative purpose? This is when the whole-of-organisation starts to change.
In regular projects, the focus is on meeting project outcomes. Even if you face obstacles and tensions, you will not pay attention to them and may brush them off as necessary evils.
However, if your organisation is undergoing a transformation, then you are missing an opportunity by not addressing the tensions. Over time, these unaddressed tensions add to transformation debt, which means that it is going to get more difficult to change the organisation over time.
A transformation track is an upfront joint agreement by the project and leadership teams to sense and respond to tensions encountered during the project. Here, we argue that such a track should be part of every project, not just the innovation projects.
The first step is to acknowledge that there will be tensions in the project. It is important that both the project and leadership teams acknowledge it upfront.
Next, we need to be sensitive to where these tensions might come from. For example, in the building inspection survey, the tensions could come from:
Aaron Dignan’s Brave New Work expands the 3Ws into 12 areas of tensions that he calls the "operating system" of an organisation:
At PebbleRoad, we have 10 areas of tensions based on our project experiences. These are:
A good way to raise the awareness of possible tensions that might crop up during the project is to get the project and leadership teams together for a workshop just after the project kick-off and draw up a ‘tensions watchlist’.
During the project, when a tension point is encountered, the first step is to qualify its impact. Some qualifying criteria include:
Going through the qualifying points ensures that you don’t capture trivial and ad hoc pain points such as 'other parties are late in responding to emails'.
Once tensions are sensed and collected, we need to resolve them. In one of our engagements, the tensions were tabled to the transformation team—a group formed specifically to look into transformation matters. The tension points were discussed in detail and compared to other similar tension points surfaced by other projects. The transformation team then had to decide whether or not to address the tension. They make the choice by considering the following:
An ideal outcome is when the change is added to the transformation backlog—a series of projects that are specifically designed to fix transformation challenges.
Some transformation projects that we’ve done for our clients include:
If you are traditional org embarking on a digital transformation journey, it is important that you don’t frame the transformation only from the top, but also capture the opportunities for transformation from the ground.
Including a transformation track to monitor ongoing initiatives or projects can help build a discipline and commitment to sensing and responding to tensions that are faced on a daily basis. Such a process ensures that the transformation is always on and this offers the necessary momentum to the overall transformation effort.
I enjoy helping organisations achieve their potential in an ever-changing and complex world. I lead product and transformation conversations.
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