Strategic Transformation

Facing the Future

Many times when I read about strategy or organizational transformation, my mind begins to feel like it’s being crushed by a giant meat grinder: there seem to be so many dimensions to consider that it quickly becomes too complex to hold in my mind.   I prefer to think about this topic in simple terms that I can explain to anyone:

  1. Why is it important to make a change now?
  2. What would it look like when the change was complete?

And then, if the change involves something important, like changing to healthier personal choices or encouraging employees to lead healthier lives, it’s good to have a strategy that will succeed.  I really appreciate what a former colleague of mine writes very clearly about strategy in this context:

“In a nutshell, people who are leading strategically are always recognizing ways to improve, and leading the change to get there. They realize that not only do they have permission to do this, but that they need to do this.” – Patty Azzarello

To answer the first question, (“Why is it important to make a change now?”), a leader will open up to self-reflection, learning from others and being objectively clear about the current situation.  Whenever our mind says one thing but the heart says another, a leader takes up the challenge to examine what is going on and do something about it.  If a leader sees or senses that something is not quite right about the present situation, it’s critical to gain a wider view, a better perspective on what is going on.  Information comes to us in many forms, and I have found that the two most important ways are:

  • Discovering or creating new ways to grow and improve:  This is what I call “the early warning” that perhaps the current way of behaving or operating have room for improvement.  When we read or hear about innovations that sound interesting, perhaps having a closer look at them, and then we discover that this solution directly applies to our own situation.  A leader has sharp vision and intuition to learn and understand more of what is possible.

As a leader, expand your horizon.  Read, meet with all levels of people and ask open questions, attend conferences that are outside your domain of expertise, look for industry trends or personal trends that will affect your customers, suppliers or distributors.  Keep a journal of what you are learning or sensing as new information, and use it during staff meetings or with your customers to help test and confirm your thoughts.

  • Recognizing complexity, waste or non-functioning things: This is the “late warning” – when our systems that worked before are no longer working well, and we don’t see why. When customers complain, escalate problems consistently or lose interest in the products you offer,  you know you have a problem.  Generally, this requires a bit of detective work to analyze and understand the systems that we are operating within and correctly identify the problem areas.

As a leader, again expand your view of the world.  Engage with people who are expanding the body of knowledge around your problem area using new approaches and see how they are progressing.   Using Lean Six Sigma practices, especially for software and IT projects, would be a great starting point for gaining deeper insight.  There is a very good presentation of the concept in an easy-to-follow presentation by Mary Poppendieck, “Lean software development: discovering waste”

To answer the second question, (“What would a change look like when complete?”), a leader will invest time and energy in creating a clearer picture of the future that others can embrace as their own and see their roles in it.  It’s important to create a shared vision that will encompass the solutions for the problems or potential problems you want to solve.  I’ve found a two step process to be the most effective path to get there:

  • Clarifying the vision of what the future state could be:  A leader calls attention to the problem and can either propose a future vision or have a small but trusted group help with this.  When a future state is first described, it should be clear what is intended in the context of the business.  A few sentences should suffice.

Write down what you know in your own words – why a change is important and what we are trying to accomplish.  And then engage the right talent – the people who have talents to be writers, poets or artists – to help you with the description.  Get ideas and feedback on it from trusted people in the organization.  Use this as a launch point for the next step.

  • Relentlessly pursuing dimensions of quality to guide the future:  This second step is important because of the inherent complexity of businesses that have many interdepartmental processes that must interact to provide products or services.

Look at the business at the process level, understand the operational limitations and critical quality points that are affecting the problems areas.  Lean Six Sigma is a methodology to help with this, so getting expert help with this part of it would expedite the step.  When you have a good view into the what the critical process issues are relative to what you are trying to accomplish, you can then use this to build a strategy for change.  Engaging a Lean Six Sigma Black Belt or Master Black Belt for this purpose will allow you to get this deeper understanding of the linkages between your key processes and the strategy for improvement.

Strategic transformation thinking is best practiced on a continual basis rather than a periodic event or triggered by crisis.  In fact, a best practice is constant vigilance and questioning of the status quo.  People who are leading strategically are using the power of their imagination to look ahead, facing the future, and consistently engaging others in understanding, planning and deploying how that future should unfold.

by Doug Lowe, 2016