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Driving transformation excellence with effective transformation teams

Transforming any organization is hard but it can be made easier through the formation of transformation teams*. But having a transformation team is not sufficient to guarantee success: you need to plan for how you’ll enable that team to succeed. Here’s our quick guide to what works well and what doesn’t —  along with three key tips to enhance transformation teams’ effectiveness.


Why transformation teams fail


Typically, transformation teams operate across department boundaries and hierarchical levels. They might be small in size, but usually have a good overview of all strategic transformation initiatives within their business area. Their responsibilities include: 


  • Providing strategic leadership support by collaborating closely with senior management, overseeing reporting and coordinating portfolio management.

  • Assisting in prioritization and decision making of strategic initiatives, resource distribution and investment allocation.

  • Ensuring stakeholder alignment and implementing effective communication.

  • Facilitating shifts from traditional waterfall methods to agile practices through training and coaching, and more.


Driving successful transformation requires significant effort. Having a transformation team operating at its full potential is one of the keys.


That said, it’s easy to underestimate the complexity of transformation. Too often, we find organizations lack a clear vision and strategy, and competing demands from business-as-usual operations may overshadow transformation teams’ strategic efforts.


At the same time, the maturity and capabilities of the transformation team itself may prove to be limited, hindering its ability to fulfill those multifaceted responsibilities effectively.


This confluence of factors can impede progress, slow down or even stall the transformation journey. And these obstacles must be addressed.


Signs that your transformation teams are set up to fail


Despite good intentions, transformation teams can all too easily fall short. Here are some of the common pitfalls we have observed.


  • Overemphasis on senior leadership. Transformation teams are too focused on senior leadership and become disconnected from operational teams. This often leads to their concepts and approaches remaining high-level, theoretical and not resonating with daily business realities. This can lead to strong resistance and even distrust from operative teams.

  • Tech-business capability gap. An unbalanced capability profile of transformation teams, with a disproportionate focus on either tech or business, hinders their ability to bridge the gap between these perspectives. Consequently, alignment of transformation efforts and jointly creating the desired business value becomes challenging for the organization.

  • Initiative overload. Pursuing too many initiatives at the same time and the tendency to start new ones before old ones are finished, results in a crowded ongoing initiative landscape — one that’s overwhelming and unmanageable and eventually dilutes the impact and effectiveness of the initiatives.

  • Operational overreach. If transformation teams become too entrenched in operational tasks, it cannibalizes the bandwidth for driving organizational level strategies and compromise their independence and credibility in certain critical discussions and decision-making processes.

  • Firefighting diversions. When centrally budgeted, transformation teams risk becoming “free-of-charge” and “easy-to-reach” resources for filling in the resource gap of red-status projects. Those teams are constantly firefighting and diverted from the intended strategic positioning.


By spotting these undesired patterns, you can pivot towards success. Through the strategic adoption of good practices, a transformation team can navigate the complexities of change with greater clarity and purpose. 


Good practices for transformational teams


Over the past years, we helped our clients in leveraging their transformation teams’ effectiveness by adopting various good practices. Here are some of the proven ones from our experience. 


  • Act as the nexus for stakeholder alignment and communication. Effective transformation demands an incredible degree of coordination across different groups. Your transformation team can bridge those groups to articulate and translate strategy across different levels, create clarity of roles and expectations, make ongoing initiatives and progress visible to everyone involved, and implement a thought-through communication plan to keep that alignment. With these, transformation teams can succeed in fostering understanding, alignment, participation and engagement throughout the entire organization.

  • Embrace tech and business fluency. Continuously develop transformation teams’ capabilities to navigate both technical and business realms and bring them closer together. In doing so, the teams are in a stronger position to facilitate the organization’s transition from “throw-over-the-fence” mentality to real cross tech-business collaboration for value creation.

  • Link strategy and execute in thin slices. Embed your transformation goals in your organizational strategy, and link them to the high-level company objectives. Embrace a “thin-slice” approach, invest time into understanding your value stream and carve out the right end-to-end value slices for setting up your initiatives, in favor of incremental progress. Resist the urge to pursue too many initiatives at the same time and wanting everything at once.

  • Emphasize leadership and culture. Always take a people-centric approach. Engage leadership courageously, creating a safe space for addressing their concerns while encouraging them to role model the desired behaviors. Foster a reinforcing positive culture in the organization by maintaining team hygiene, facilitating team building and celebrating success. Enhance knowledge sharing across the organization through setting up communities of practices. 

  • Leverage organizational setup. Understand that frameworks, methodologies, toolkits work only to a certain extent and are bounded by your organizational constraints. True transformation requires changes in your operating model and organizational setup as well. Analyze and provide valuable insights from the strategic work, help senior leadership on organizational design and facilitate organizational change.


Although not exhaustive, this list serves as a good starting point for adopting good practices, with tailoring to your unique organizational context.


Three tips for long-term transformation success


With those good practices in pace, your transformation teams are well placed. But we'd also like to highlight three further key considerations that can ensure your transformation team’s long-term success.


  • Take a comprehensive and iterative approach. Transformation’s complexity demands a comprehensive approach that considers the interconnectedness of various organizational aspects. An iterative process of creating incremental value and starting with small lighthouse projects is imperative. As the transformation journey progresses, it’s essential to regularly reassess your evolving business landscape and organizational needs — and adjust your strategies based on observations, learnings and feedback.

    - Recommended reading: Thoughtworks’ EDGE operating model explains how to bridge the gap between transformation strategy and execution.


  • Keep focused as an enabling team. Though sometimes it might be tempting to involve transformational teams in operational tasks or plug resource gaps in urgent projects, organizations must keep it clear that the team’s primary role is to enable your organization for the desired changes rather than to directly deliver operational results. The organization wants a transformation team, so the team should stay focused as one.

    - Recommended reading: The “Team Topologies” framework provides good insights on team types and interaction modes. 


  • Render transformation team’s current effort obsolete in the long run. It may sound funny but actually you should aim for rendering your transformation team’s undergoing effort to become obsolete in the long run. This guardrail helps to ensure that your transformation team focuses on enabling other teams, upskilling their capabilities and empowering more autonomous teams, and avoids falling into the trap of becoming an expert team or a bottleneck that other teams grow heavily dependent on. 


Successful transformation teams have to incorporate a wide range of capabilities, have clear roles and responsibilities, set up the right boundaries, and keep their strategic focus. With these outlined good practices and key considerations, transformation teams have a better chance to succeed in driving organizational changes more effectively.


*Transformation Team: while a transformation office is usually placed at the top level of a company, driving transformation effort closely with the executive board, transformation teams referred to in this article are those teams placed at lower levels in the company and focus on the execution of transformation activities within their dedicated business areas. Depending on the organization, these teams are often also named as transformation execution team, digital transformation team, lean & agile transformation team etc.

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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