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Designing Your Organization for Transformation

Designing Your Organization for Transformation

GUEST POST from Greg Satell

The March on Washington, in which Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, is one of the most iconic events in American history. So it shouldn’t be surprising that when anybody wants to drive change in the United States, they often begin with trying to duplicate that success.

Yet that’s a gross misunderstanding of why the march was successful. As I explain in Cascades, the civil rights movement didn’t become powerful because of the March on Washington, the March on Washington took place because the civil rights movement became powerful. It was part of the end game, not an opening shot.

Unfortunately, many corporate transformations make the same mistake. They try to drive change without preparing the ground first. So it shouldn’t be surprising that McKinsey has found that only about a quarter of transformational efforts succeed. Make no mistake, transformation is a journey, not a destination, and you start by preparing the ground first.

Start with a Keystone Change

Every successful transformation starts out with a vision, such as racial equality in the case of the civil rights movement. Yet to be inspiring, a vision needs to be aspirational, which means it is rarely achievable in any practical time frame. A good vision is more of a beacon than it is a landmark.

That’s probably why every successful transformation I found in my research first had to identify a keystone change which had a tangible and concrete objective, involved multiple stakeholders and paved the way for future change. In some cases, there are multiple keystone changes being pursued at once seeking to influence different institutions.

For example, King and his organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), mobilized southern blacks, largely through religious organizations, to influence the media and politicians. At the same time, through their work at the NAACP, Charles Hamilton Houston and Thurgood Marshall worked to influence the judicial system to eliminate segregation.

The same principle holds for corporate transformations. When Paul O’Neill set out to turnaround Alcoa in the 1980s, he started by improving workplace safety and, more recently, at Experian, when CIO Barry Libenson set out to move his company to the cloud, he started with internal APIs. In both cases, the stakeholders won over in achieving the keystone change also played a part in bringing about the larger vision.

Lead with Values

Throughout his career, Nelson Mandela was accused of being a communist, an anarchist and worse. Yet when confronted with these, he would always point out that nobody needed to guess what he believed, because it was all written down in the Freedom Charter way back in 1955. Those values signaled to everybody, both inside and outside of the anti-apartheid movement, what they were fighting for.

In a similar vein, when Lou Gerstner arrived at IBM in the early 90s, he saw that the once great company had lost sight of its values. For example, its salespeople were famous for dressing formally, but that was merely an early manifestation of a value. The original idea was to be close to customers and, since most of IBM’s early customers were bankers, salespeople dressed formally. Yet if customers were now wearing khakis, it was okay for IBM’ers to do so as well.

Another long held value at IBM was a competitive spirit, but IBM executives had started to compete with each other internally rather than working to beat the competition. So Gerstner worked to put a stop to the bickering, even firing some high-placed executives who were known for infighting. He made it clear, through personal conversations, emails and other channels that in the new IBM the customer would come first.

What’s important to remember about values is, if they are to be anything more than platitudes, you have to be willing to incur costs to live up to them. When Nelson Mandela rose to power, he couldn’t oppress white South Africans and live up to the values in the Freedom Charter. At IBM, Gerstner was willing to give up potential revenue on some sales to make his commitment to the customer credible.

Build a Network of Small Groups

With attendance at its weekend services exceeding 20,000, Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church is one of the largest congregations in the world. Yet much like the March on Washington, the mass of people obscures the networks that underlie the church and are the source of its power.

The heart of Saddleback Church is the prayer groups of six to eight people that meet each week, build strong ties and support each other in matters of faith, family and career. It is the loose connections between these small groups that give Saddleback its combination of massive reach and internal coherence, much like the networks of small groups convened in front of the Lincoln Memorial during the civil rights movement.

One of the key findings of my research into social and political movements is that they are driven by small groups, loosely connected, but united by a common purpose. Perhaps not surprisingly, research has also shown that the structure of networks plays a major role in organizational performance.

That’s why it’s so important to network your organization by building bonds that supersede formal relationships. Experian, for example has built a robust network of clubs, where employees can share a passion, such as bike riding and employee resource groups, that are more focused on identity. While these activities are unrelated to work, the company has found that it helps employees span boundaries in the organization and collaborate more effectively.

All too often, we try to break down silos to improve information flow. That’s almost aways a mistake. To drive a true transformation, you need to connect silos so that they can coordinate action.

Make the Shift from Hierarchies to Networks

In an earlier age, organizations were far more hierarchical. Power rested at the top. Orders went down, information flowed up and decisions we made by a select priesthood of vaunted executives. In today’s highly connected marketplace, that’s untenable. The world has become fast and hierarchies are simply too slow.

That’s especially true when it comes to transformation. It doesn’t matter if the order comes from the top. If the organization itself isn’t prepared, any significant transformation is unlikely to succeed. That’s why you need to lead with vision, establish a keystone change that involves multiple stakeholders and work deliberately to network your organization.

Yet perhaps most importantly, you need to understand that in a networked world, power no longer resides at the top of hierarchies, but emanates from the center of networks. You move to center by continually widening and deepening connections. That’s how you drive a true transformation.

None of this happens overnight. It takes some time. That’s why the desire for change is not nearly as important as the will to prepare for it.

— Article courtesy of the Digital Tonto blog
— Image credit: Pixabay

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Planning to Spread

We’ve all seen the viral videos that seemingly come out of nowhere to garner millions of views on YouTube, videos like this one where five people play one guitar singing Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know”, which as of this date has garnered more than 163 million video views:

And if you add up all of the other postings of this same video, the total number of video views goes much, much higher.

Now, surely Gotye’s version of the song couldn’t have possibly garnered more views than this viral sensation that Walk Off the Earth’s cover created, could it?

Um, actually it did. To date Gotye’s official video has captured nearly 600 million video views, or nearly FIVE TIMES as many video views. So, it hasn’t turned out all bad for Gotye.

Now you might ask yourself, how could the huge success of the Walk Off the Earth viral campaign be trumped by traditional marketing if viral marketing is supposed to be the silver bullet?

Well, the truth is that whether you pursue traditional marketing and advertising or supposedly “viral” marketing activities, the goals are the same:

  1. Awareness
  2. Interest
  3. Desire
  4. Action

And it is within that first bullet point, that you find the viral component that any marketing activity or any evangelism activity (for innovation, for change, etc.) should always contain – spreadability.

Now, WordPress doesn’t seem to think that spreadability is a word, but let’s assume for a moment that it is and focus on the fact that most of the time, one of your goals in business (and your personal life) is spreadability. Ultimately, in many cases, success is determined by whether or not you can get your idea to spread.

This is true whether we are talking about an IT project, a Six Sigma continuous improvement effort, a change initiative, a Lean event, a marketing campaign, or a project commercializing an invention into a potential innovation.

So, can anyone guarantee that an idea or marketing campaign will spread?

The short answer is no.

Sorry, I wish I had better news for you, but the fact is that nobody can guarantee that your idea or your marketing campaign will go viral. Why?

You’re dealing with humans living in a complicated world. We’re not all built the same and the same person can have different reactions to the same stimulus (driven by mood and context among other things). This can result in a perfectly spreadable idea or message being stopped dead in its tracks, depriving you of all of the potential downstream sharing that you might have been hoping for or counting on.

Sorry, you can’t guarantee spreadability, despite what opportunistic marketing consultants claiming to know the magic formula might tell you.

Spreading ChangeBut, an idea can be built to spread.

And I’d like to share with you a simple framework, for free, that you can download and spread far and wide.

Click here to download the “Planning to Spread” starter worksheet as a PDF.

It’s based on the same priniciples as mind mapping and it will help you start either with a particular node in mind (someone you’d like to reach and influence) and work backwards, identifying both how to evolve your idea to best influence that particular node, and how you might be able to reach them (at the same time). Or you can work from the idea outwards. Focusing primarily on the WHO and the WHY as you move outward.

The key questions to consider as you are “Planning to Spread” your idea are the following:

  1. What is your idea or message? (Does it resonate with my target audience?)
  2. Who are you trying to reach?
  3. How will you reach them?
    • When will they be most receptive to the message or idea?
    • Where will they be most receptive to the message or idea?
  4. Why will they engage? (What value will they get?)
  5. Why will they share? (What value will they derive?)
  6. How will they share?

Working your way thoughtfully through these questions will increase the chances that your idea or message will spread, but they won’t guarantee it. Going through the process however will help you refine your idea or message, help you think through the mechanics of how you might encourage and increase engagement, and may even help you uncover flaws in your idea or message that you missed (and give you a chance to fix them).

Planning to Spread WorksheetHappy spreading!
(and please let me know in the comments below any things I might have missed)

So what am I trying to spread?

Well, in the run up to my second book (this time focusing on the best practices and next practices of organizational change), soon I will be releasing a new collaborative, visual change planning toolkit to help organizations work smarter by planning their change initiatives (and projects) in a less overwhelming, more human way that will help get everyone literally on the same page.

This is the idea that I will be spreading and there are many ways that you can benefit.

One way is by becoming a case study volunteer. I’m looking to select a handful of companies to teach how to use the toolkit for free and feature their experience in my next book on the best practices and next practices of organizational change. If you would like to get a jump on the competition by increasing your speed of change (and your ability to work smarter), register your interest here.

But there are several other ways you can benefit, and all of them can be found here (including upcoming chances for consultants to train on the methodology and boost their revenue and success as they work with their clients around the world to deliver positive change). I’ll be focusing on teaching and tools, not consulting.

What message or idea are you trying to spread?


Accelerate your change and transformation success

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Innovation Quotes of the Day – April 11, 2012


“Innovation transforms the useful seeds of invention into solutions valued above every existing alternative – and of course widely adopted.”

– Braden Kelley


“Innovation is fostered by information gathered from new connections; from insights gained by journeys into other disciplines or places; from active, collegial networks and fluid, open boundaries. Innovation arises from ongoing circles of exchange, where information is not just accumulated or stored, but created. Knowledge is generated anew from connections that weren’t there before.”

– Margaret J. Wheatley, author of Leadership and the New Science


What are some of your favorite innovation quotes?

Add one or more to the comments, listing the quote and who said it, and I’ll share the best of the submissions as future innovation quotes of the day!

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