3 ways to avoid failure in your business transformation efforts

Truly transformational changes are some of the most difficult yet rewarding endeavors a leader can tackle. Here are some areas to watch for when launching your transformations.

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Opportunities to truly transform an organization are some of the most exciting challenges a leader can undertake. Deploying innovative new technologies, supporting the launch of a new product or service, or even changing the strategic focus of the organization are rare opportunities. 

They're also some of the most difficult endeavors a leader can tackle, to the point that I've seen many executives who embraced a transformational effort at launch ultimately become some of its strongest opponents. Here are three areas where transformational efforts can fail. Being aware of these pitfalls and addressing them head on can increase your chances of success in your own organizational transformation efforts.

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Prepare for hard work

It might seem silly to state that transformations are difficult, but most organizations underestimate the challenges of truly transformational efforts. It's easy to become distracted by the lofty objectives, exciting vision statements, opportunities to explore new technologies, and dreams of a better tomorrow. Getting there, however, will require sweat, tears, grit, determination, and thousands of hard decisions. Consider for a moment that you'll likely be asking fellow leaders to abandon decades of tools and tactics that made them successful, and perhaps even fighting foundational elements of your organization's culture.

Avoid the temptation to focus only on the positive, and try to inject some steely-eyed realism should you find yourself surrounded by people who assume that a transformation will be a walk in the park. Where possible, research previous transformational efforts your company has undertaken, and use your network of colleagues at other companies to discover where they ran into trouble. Consultants and vendors may also be able to help, but use caution as they may also have a vested interest in presenting difficult transformations as easy, assuming you will purchase their services.

Plan for cultural push-back

There's a misperception that people fear and resist change and the unknown. Rather, they fear and resist actions that are not in their own self-interests. Without going deep into the psychology, at a fundamental level most living organisms are designed for self-preservation. As leaders and staff in organizations, we generally act in the manner we believe will preserve our status, position, and long-term employment possibilities. Without being explicitly stated, in most cases transformational efforts will affect all these areas, and often call into question practices that leaders have built their entire careers upon.

At the line level, transformation efforts may threaten key tenets of your company's culture. These "cultural norms" are likely unstated, but likely even more real and entrenched than the "party line" as captured in mission statements or HR policy. For example, if your company has a culture that prides itself on individual initiative, many individuals in the company may believe they can ignore or actively oppose a transformational effort since it goes against their individual instincts. Similarly, a culture that prides itself on the organization's history or ability to innovate might bristle against anything perceived as "not invented here," including most transformational efforts that require new thinking, tools, and techniques to execute successfully.

Try to link your transformational efforts to supportive aspects of your company culture. A pride in innovation, for example, could be linked to the innovative aspects of your initiative. At a minimum, maintain awareness of how your culture will help and hinder your effort, and act to leverage the former and mitigate the latter.

Watch for shifting support

As transformational efforts progress, they often challenge fundamentals of how the organization operates and behaves. This can rapidly turn allies into enemies, and vice versa, oftentimes without the players making any conscious decision that they've changed their level of support for the effort. The executive sponsor who kicked off the effort with wild zeal may shift to actively opposing the effort once she realizes that it shifts a key revenue stream away from her area or reduces her importance in the transformed organization. Similarly, a skeptical colleague may "see the light" once he realizes that transformation presents new opportunity, and become a fervent supporter. There's also the risk that a key sponsor moves on to the next interesting initiative, and you're left without support at the top of the organization.

In all cases, take time on a regular basis to assess key players in the organization, and whether they support, are neutral, or are potential detractors for your effort. In some cases, shifting support may have minimal impact to your broader success, while in others it can be a sign of imminent danger. Intriguingly, you may even find yourself opposing an effort that you sponsored if it appears the transformation will ultimately adversely impact your position and relevance in the organization.

Successful transformations are the stuff of company legend, and in some cases even make the annals of business history and skyrocket individuals' careers. Successful and rewarding transformations are not easy to execute; however, being aware of these three areas can increase your odds of success.

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By Patrick Gray

Patrick Gray works for a leading global professional services firm, where he helps companies rapidly invent and launch new businesses. He is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companio...