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Pioneering Organizational Transformation: Here's What You Need to Know

According to the dictionary, a pioneer is “a person who is among those who first settle or develop an area, and prepares the way for others to follow.”

Reflecting on this, I realized that this felt similar to a recent large-scale transformation, one that aimed to move the whole organization from large scale IT projects to one that is truly customer-led.

Don’t be fooled; being first doesn’t make it liberating or even easy. Being first means it’s mostly unknown, hard, and ambiguous.

Above all, it can be extremely frustrating. There are no maps, user manuals, or even a cleared foundation to start from. You need to get your hands dirty a lot, and you need to be prepared to make mistakes. Mostly, you need to be ready to figure it out as you go.

Meaningful change, like travel, is best measured by learning, not by how far you go.

You don't need to look very far to see most organizations around the world in the midst of a significant, never-been-done-before reorganization. The hyper pace of change and relentless pressure not to have their own Kodak moment has propelled organizations to break new ground and find ways to build better.  

Most importantly, organizations are striving to be led by the only reason they exist: to deliver value to their customers. But how do you even begin to do that? How do you start to rethink the most fundamental interactions, mindsets and behaviors of an organization?

One size does not fit all.  Every organization has its own unique culture, its own customers, and its own way of going about work. So frankly, if anyone tells you they have the answer, they’re probably not being completely honest.

Having been lucky enough to have made plenty of mistakes and learned from pioneers past and present, I have seen that although there is no definitive way of going about it, there are some principles that are universal.

Here’s are 10 things you need to have in your pioneer kit, especially if you want your settlers to follow soon after:

1. Dedicate a team of people to make the transformation real

Always start with how you intend to proceed. Commit to the transformation and dedicate people to it. That is their only job to do. It’s critical to have one of the organization’s most senior and influential people lead the transformation. Choose members of your transformation team that are influencers in your organization. Have a healthy mix of doers and leaders.

Finally, make sure you have people who represent all parts of your organization, even shared services like HR and finance. You will touch every part of your organization, so let the people who do the work take control of the work.

2. Build a simple vision anchor

Words aren’t enough: simply saying that you are going to be customer-led or putting the customer at the center of everything you is never going to be enough. People will need some reassurance of what your operating model will look like.

Use a simple visual that can ground the organization in what good looks like. Believe me, this is not for the faint-hearted. It’s hard, but done right, it will become the one thing that grounds the organization with a common purpose and ambition.

3. Commit to a learning agenda, not an end date

Invest early in developing a learning culture rather than building Gantt charts. Organizational transformation is an iterative process; you will learn through early test-and-learn loops what works and what needs to be shut down. Evidence-based learning enables better decision making and provide the organization with the direction for the next checkpoint.

4. Get commitment from the Senior Leadership Team

A customer doesn’t see, know, or more importantly, care about your internal silos or who is in your C-suite. Yet, you are going to need them.

You will run into barriers early and often. Without full commitment, support and change from your leaders, it’s near impossible to change.  

The transformation needs to not only be intertwined into the rhythm of your organization, but also into the regular rhythm of when senior teams meet and focus their energy. They must move blockers and help the organization move from one where the customer connects the dots to one where the customer’s experience is seamless.

5. Make things visual

Making the work of the organization visual is a unique blend of art and science. Done right, visualization can help cast a spotlight on the bottlenecks and inefficiencies of your organization.

The first and best place to start is making all the work of the organization visual on a physical wall. In a way, it’s your “bring out your dead” moment. Nine times out of ten, it’s not until you take things out of spreadsheets and put them in one place that you see the depth of the problems we are trying to solve for. More importantly, the value is in having conversations around the “wall” to draw meaningful insights and make decision-making obvious.

6. Think big, start smart, iterate

Take action on a small scale as early as possible by validating your approach with real learnings. Take one small team and give them freedom from the usual rigors such as KPIs, annual reviews, and even traditional roles. Choose a customer outcome as your anchor, put the people who know the work in charge of the work, and demonstrate early how the organization can change.

Inevitably, teams that are largely unconstrained and only given one purpose—delivering what matters to customers—will thrive. Amplify and scale the things that worked, dismiss and learn from the things that didn't.

7.  Get out of the building

Go, see, explore, learn. Transformation teams can quickly become irrelevant unless they connect more broadly. Investing time outside of their own team is vital.

Getting in front of customers, other teams, and even other organizations with their own ongoing transformations will ensure that teams stay connected to the actual work. Decisions become informed and rooted in data, insights, and observations.

If you want to change the work, get out amongst the people who do the work.

8. Measure your work

We measure to understand and to learn. Measurement is key to understanding if an organization is getting closer to achieving purpose and delivering what matters to customers. There should be a connecting thread, from a small feature all the way up to purpose.

Institute ways of effectively measuring the work by making it visible, changing the conversation to measuring customer value instead of cost, and then acting on what has been learned.

9. Hire a storyteller

The art of storytelling has always existed. More and more organizations are opting out of endless slide decks and quarterly reviews. Instead, they’re opting in to the power of a compelling message.

Having a storyteller on the transformation team is powerful. They are the voice of the transformation: getting up time and time again to communicate, reassure, and inspire. A powerful narrative of why the transformation is happening will motivate people into action more than any 20-page deck or bar chart will.

10. Make it safe for leaders to change

Eliyahu Goldratt put it best when he said, “Tell me how you will measure me and I will tell you how I behave.” At some point, you’ll need to address the big hairy performance management process. You can’t keep measuring people the same way, and then expect a different result.

Two key shifts will need to happen. Start measuring your organization against what matters to customers and two, move away from individual measures to team based measures. Changing what people are measured against will change behavior.

Being a pioneer is going to be hard, and knowing what to conditions to pack for is definitely going to make it easier. But don’t get too comfortable, meaningful change—like travel—is best measured by learning, not by how far you go.

Disclaimer: The statements and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Thoughtworks.

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