How can you design an organisation to transform and perform at the same time?

In my years as an organisation designer, I’ve seen a certain scenario play out a lot: companies or business units FINALLY get meaningful transformation investment after months, if not years, of making the case. For the teams involved, getting the go-ahead is a cause for celebration, but in reality, the hard work is only just starting.

The challenge for most organisations is that the green light rarely permits long-term transformation to come at the expense of current performance. In fact, often a drive for short-term results is what’s created the pent-up demand for change in the first place. Organisations with the largest transformation agendas are often those with the strongest cultures of commercial performance in the here-and-now.

For those leading the change agenda, the need to deliver transformation without impacting performance can feel overwhelming, but asking some key organisational questions can help.  

What (realistically) can we get done?

Often the journey to getting funding has involved painting a picture of the future, and a world where the investment has paid off. But there’s a huge (and typically challenging) stage ahead of this that involves spending those funds and spending them well.  

On receiving investment, it’s easy to find yourself stuck in a process of happy planning – producing ambitious roadmaps for change that don’t take account of the organisation you are in. This is the time to get brutally realistic about what can get done – in the short-term more investment means more work, on top of an already demanding set of business-as-usual activity.  

There is a need at this point to have those challenging conversations about what ‘perform’ and ‘transform’ look like in your context. What is a realistic ambition for change? What are your tolerances and trade-offs in the here and now? If everyone is clear on the destination, are they aligned on the timescales? It is critical here to talk about outcomes, getting clear on what new capabilities and opportunities will be unlocked at key milestones, not just what will be ‘built’.   

Where is the capacity for change going to come from?

Often an investment in change is, in the first instance, an investment in headcount. Once the budget is there, organisations typically look to bring in change and transformation expertise to drive activity. Whilst this isn’t a bad move, it’s important to be thoughtful about where the additional capacity for change is going to come from.

Whilst dedicated change leaders can help to provide focus and accountability, it’s inevitable that your change agenda will draw on the time, effort and headspace of existing ‘business-as-usual’ leaders. Their domain expertise and lived experience of the current organisation will be vital, and their role in change shouldn’t be seen as a ‘side of desk’ activity requiring little dedicated time. At this point, you may want to explore whether to invest your budget not directly in change teams, but in additional headcount to deliver business-as-usual activity, such that the existing personnel who’ll need to play a major role in change have the time and space to do so.

It’s worth also considering the change portfolios of individual leaders. Having dedicated resources is good but be careful not to load your entire change agenda onto too few people. Not only might this stretch individuals’ capacities, but it also has the potential to create single points of failure that bring excessive organisational risk. Thinking consciously about what people’s portfolios looks like, and what strengths and limitations individuals are likely to bring to these, can help balance the work better.

What should still be part of our business-as-usual?

If you’ve gone without meaningful transformation for some time, then it’s likely that tactical or incremental improvements driven through business-as-usual activity will have become the only way to keep up. In the context of impending major change, it’s important to be highly selective about which incremental improvements still needs to happen. Keeping business-as-usual activity focused and disciplined will prevent the here-and-now taking over at the expense of the long-term.

Defining your new business-as-usual agenda requires transparent and effective communications between change teams and the wider organisation. Excessive optimism around change can mean that incremental improvements are ‘switched off’ too hastily, compromising performance. Conversely excessive scepticism around change can mean investments in incremental improvements continue when they’re likely not to have a sufficient payback time ahead of more meaningful transformation. Throughout the transformation process, the business-as-usual portfolio and the change portfolio need to be operated in sync and continually adjusted.

How do our leadership practices need to change?

A final question to consider is how you will change activity alongside business-as-usual in as a leadership team. I’ve often seen leadership team meeting agendas become a hotchpotch of different items, blending short-term and long-term conversations in a way that makes it easy for people to be talking at cross-purposes.  It’s important to design the right governance and practices around change and define what this means for the ways of working you have already. In doing this, you can ensure as a team you’re set up to manage along different time horizons, connecting the dots where required whilst maintaining distinct focus on each. 

About Kindred

Kindred helps organisations achieve growth and impact by establishing the structures, practices and behaviours for people to do their best work. We work with leaders and teams to ensure they’re set up for success, in both the here-and-now and the long-term.

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