Five Reasons Why it’s Really Difficult to be a Transformation Director Right Now

transformation Mar 08, 2019
I love working in transformational change. Supporting long-term sustainable business growth by bringing teams together to work differently is as rewarding as it is challenging.

However, I’ve been in this business a long time and I’ve noticed that recently life has gotten a lot harder for directors of transformational change. Here’s why:

1. Increasing demands from all directions

Everyone is under a lot more pressure – and that pressure frequently gets passed on to the transformation director.

The longer-term change in demands on businesses are often experienced as feelings. The feeling that the life cycle of business is speeding up which makes even big secure companies worry about becoming extinct; the feeling that customer requirements will pivot in just a few years and make some companies irrelevant in their marketplace.

Even though these trends are experienced as feelings it doesn’t make them less real. In 1958 the average life-cycle of a S&P500 company was 61 years; in 2017 it was 18 years. This means that in 2027, more than three quarters of the S&P500 will not exist. These translate into big anxieties - how can we survive as a company; how do we remain relevant to our customers?

There are also shorter-term changes in demands, many of which originate externally – the ever-increasing scale and pace of technological advances, political instability, constant disruption in key markets – and these translates into internal anxieties: how do we keep our share of the market, how do we maintain growth, how do we keep hold of our staff?

All of this is then passed onto the transformation director. Their job is to make changes happen. If everyone is out of kilter, they have to fix it. But trying to keep up with what is going on is tough – particularly when people want everything to be transformed and that transformation completed by tomorrow.

2. Change fatigue has set in

Because there is so much change taking place, lots of companies experience “change fatigue”. Change fatigue is when a group of users in the company is expected to alter many different parts of their ways of working over a short period of time in response to different change initiatives. We have often heard stories of staff feeling overwhelmed with the number and pace of change projects. In general, staff would prefer a few well co-ordinated change projects with sufficient time in between each to internalise the changes and absorb them into their routine practice.

Change fatigue alone is a challenge for transformation directors to deal with. When you consider this alongside the pressures felt in point 1, their job becomes even harder. 

3. Too many models claim to be best practice

As more and more transformation takes place, an increasing number of people develop theoretical models for how to do it successfully. Some of them are better than others in being clear about what situations the model applies to most successfully and how you can practically apply it. However, often you find that there are multiple models designed to achieve the same outcome and no great clarity about which to use. The transformation director can often find themselves under pressure to apply all of the perceived best practice models to everything they do, which might not necessarily be the right thing to do, or even possible.

4. Change has a bad reputation

Historically, transformational change has not been done very effectively. Therefore, no one believes that it is possible to do sustainably. Frequently you find that the people who don’t think change is possible are the ones experiencing change fatigue. This is not necessarily an attitude problem as many staff will have experienced unsuccessful or unsustainable change in the past.

However, this creates a Catch-22 situation. Failed change projects leave people feeling that change isn’t possible. Because they believe this, they don’t engage with or buy-in to future change projects – and without engagement and buy-in a change project won’t work. In the middle of this circle of failure is the transformation director who has to find a way to break the pattern.

5. There aren’t enough in-house skills

In order to improve the likelihood of having successful and sustainable change projects experienced transformation staff are required. Organisations can find themselves between a rock and a hard place.

On the one hand, they could bring in external experience. However, they won’t understand the organisation sufficiently and therefore won’t fully appreciate the context in which the change is being implemented. This makes them less effective and applies to newly hired staff, interim contractors or consultants.

On the other, they could use internal people but they won’t necessarily have the skills and experience in successful and sustainable transformation. Simply sending them on a training course is unlikely to address this as it won’t provide the bridge between the theoretical learning and the practical real-life scenarios that they are likely to need to address. The transformation director is the person who has to find a way out from between that rock and the hard place.

These five examples combine to make life particularly challenging for transformation directors right now. Would you agree? Is there another big challenge I have missed out?

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