Transformation track: empowering every team to change the organisation

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.

Published on
December 12, 2019
Reading time 5min
Two persons work together carrying a spanner

A typical fail scenario

A bold strategy is unveiled

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 excitement is underway

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.

The attack of the immune system

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.

The morale-crushing fail

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.

A better way

What could have prevented this fail? What if the situation unfolded like the following:

  • The leadership team acknowledge that new projects will face the wrath of the organisation’s immune system. They take preventive action.
  • The leaders and the project team come to a shared understanding of how to address the tensions that will surface during the project and make a commitment to resolve them.
  • When the email from the Audit Office comes, nobody is surprised. In fact, they are expecting such obstacles.
  • The leaders assemble the heads of the Audit Office and the project team and demand a change. This leads nicely to another project, this time for the Audit Office to update its auditing practices. Hurrah for progress.
  • The cycle repeats where each project offers an opportunity for the organisation to truly transform.

In the remainder of this article, we will describe the transformation track in detail.

What is transformation?

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:

  • Purpose: We will not be able to deliver on our purpose and not doing this is worse than not having a purpose.
  • Customers: They are already experiencing the ‘better’ everywhere so they are not going to stick with you.
  • Competitors: Startups and scaleups will eventually take our market share with their better products and services.

What is organisational change?

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.

  • Work: Building inspection surveys were done manually using cranes. Today, drones are doing the job.
  • Workforce: The people doing the manual survey are transitioned to working with new technologies (drones) and analysing the data they produce so that they can make better decisions.
  • Workplace: Before, people needed to be together to carry out the work, but today, with the help of collaboration tools much of the work is done remotely via interfaces.
Drones doing building inspection work. Source: Heady days: Use of drones to detect defects on HDB blocks takes flight

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.

What is a transformation track?

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.

How to sense tensions?

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:

  • Work: New drone work capabilities, including inputs, outputs and reporting.
  • Workforce: Lack of knowledge of digital tools and data analytics.
  • Workplace: New integrations with other systems, new interfaces, new ways of working.

Aaron Dignan’s Brave New Work expands the 3Ws into 12 areas of tensions that he calls the "operating system" of an organisation:

  1. Purpose: how we orient and steer
  2. Authority: how we share power and make decisions
  3. Structure: how we organise and team
  4. Strategy: how we plan and prioritise
  5. Resources: how we invest our time and money
  6. Innovation: how we learn and evolve
  7. Workflow: how we divide and do the work
  8. Meetings: how we convene and coordinate
  9. Information: how we share and use data
  10. Memberships: how we define and cultivate relationships
  11. Mastery: how we grow and mature
  12. Compensation: how we pay and provide

At PebbleRoad, we have 10 areas of tensions based on our project experiences. These are:

  1. Purpose
  2. Mindset
  3. Strategy
  4. Leadership
  5. Structure
  6. People
  7. IT and infrastructure
  8. Workflow
  9. Data
  10. Innovation

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:

  • Area of tension
  • Description of tension
  • Impact on project
  • Applicability (local or global)
  • Impact to transformation
  • Possible solutions
  • Key contact people

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'.

How to respond to tensions?

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:

  • Size of change (small or big?)
  • Ripple effects (if we address this tension, what other parts will be affected?)
  • Costs (opex or capex?)
  • Timeline (months or years?)
  • Accountability (who will own the change?)

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.

How to gather tensions

Some transformation projects that we’ve done for our clients include:

  • Purpose: to define the organisation’s purpose.
  • Strategy: to define guiding principles that will guide resource allocation and decision-making in the organisation.
  • Structure: to create a new department dedicated to digital transformation that oversees transformation efforts.
  • Leadership: to define and fill new leadership roles to steer transformation.
  • People: to grow capabilities by co-teaming.
  • IT and infrastructure: to create new IT operating models for the organisation to balance out between process standardisation and data integration across the board.


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.

Maish Nichani
Maish Nichani
Engagement Director

I enjoy helping organisations achieve their potential in an ever-changing and complex world. I lead product and transformation conversations.

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